The issue of migration took centre stage in the race to succeed Angela Merkel on Thursday after one of the front-runners called for the right to asylum to be changed in the German constitution.
Friedrich Merz, one of three contenders to succeed Mrs Merkel as leader of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) next month, called for the German constitution to be amended.
“I share your anger when there is talk of loss of control over migration,” Mr Merz told a party hustings on Wednesday night. “For a long time now I have that we should be prepared to talk openly about the right to asylum and whether it can continue if we seriously want a European migration and refugee policy.”
Mr Merz’s remarks attracted widespread criticsm and were swiftly condemned by his main rivals for the party leadership.
“The right to asylum was enshrined in the constituion for a good reason,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “The authors of the constitution chose their words carefully because of Germany’s historic responsibility for the persecution of the Jewish people. Jewish refugees were turned away at the borders of neutral countries and deported directly to Auschwitz.”
“The fundamental right to asylum for the persecuted comes against the backdrop of two world warsof great suffering and expulsions, and is a great achievement of our constitution,” Jens Spahn said. “The problem is that it is being exploited too often today, leading to uncontrolled migration.”
CDU grandees spoke out against Mr Merz’s remarks, and Karl Lauterbach, a senior MP from Mrs Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), accused him of acting like a “Trump lite”.
After coming under sustained criticism, Mr Merz sought to clarify his remarks on Thursday. “Of course, I do not question the fundamental right to asylum to make politics out of Christian responsibility and against the background of German history,” he said. “But for me it is clear that we can only solve the issues of immigration, migration and asylum in a European context.”
The right to asylum is recognised around the world and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 United Nations refugee convention.
Germany is one of few countries to also guarantee it in its own constitution, but it goes further, recognising it as an individual right. Mr Merz argues this makes it impossible to agree a European Union refugee system, as the German authorities are obliged to consider every asylum claim.
It not clear if the changes called for by Merz are possible. While the German constitution can be amended — there have been 50 changes since 2003 — the right to asylum is one of a number of “fundamental rights” that cannot be removed.
The row has galvanised a leadership contest that has appeared polite and non-confrontational until now. Despite condemnation from the CDU leadership, there was also support for Mr Merz from the party grassroots.
He made the comments at the first regional hustings in the former East Germany, where Mrs Merkel’s refugee policy has been particularly unpopular and the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has made dramatic inroads campaigning on an anti-migrant platform.
Both Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and Mr Spahn have called for migrant policy to be tightened and more rejected asylum-seekers to be deported. Mr Spahn has long been one of the CDU’s most vocal critics of Mrs Merkel’s migrant policy.
With just over two weeks to go the race is too tight to call, with Mr Merz and Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer neck-and-neck. An opinion poll earlier this week found voters favour Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was ahead with general voters when asked who they would like to see as Germany’s next chancellor.
But the next CDU leader will be chosen by delegates at the party conference next month and German commentators say Mr Merz may have a slim lead at the moment.
Mr Spahn has fallen behind the frontrunners and faced calls to pull out of the race this week. “I think this will come down to a duel between Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer,” Armin Laschet, one of the party’s most influential grandees said.