Merkel and the refugees: How German leader emerged from a political abyss

Germans should be proud of the warm welcome they gave hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, she told an audience of over 1,000 gathered in the fishing village of Steinhude.

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Then she shifted gears: “What happened in 2015 cannot, should not and must not happen again.”

It is a phrase she has used repeatedly in market squares across Germany as she campaigns for a fourth term in a federal election on Sept. 24 that she is widely expected to win.

Two years since she opened Germany’s borders to asylum seekers to avert what she says was a looming humanitarian disaster, and saw her popularity slide as a result, Merkel has climbed her way out of the deepest hole of her political career.

0:00 Melkel talks German immigration during TV debate Share Melkel talks German immigration during TV debate

There are many factors behind her comeback. But few are as important as her skill at spinning a narrative about the refugee crisis that many Germans can support, whether they cheered or condemned her actions of 2015.

“Merkel is not running on a policy of open borders and that fits perfectly with the mood in the country,” said Robin Alexander, author of a best-selling book on the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis.

“Many people like the image of Germany as a model of humanitarian virtue. At the same time they know the country could not continue to welcome refugees like it did. It is this set of feelings that Merkel is appealing to.”

By the end of 2015, 890,000 asylum seekers had entered Germany, many without proper identity checks, overwhelming local communities.

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Merkel’s actions divided Europe and led to a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. The hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party seems sure to enter parliament for the first time.

A year after her decision, and following a series of small-scale attacks in Germany by Islamist militants, her popularity ratings had plunged 30 points to 45 percent and she faced questions about whether she would run for chancellor again.

Yet today, 63 percent of Germans say she is doing a good job and, according to a Bertelsmann Foundation survey this week, 59 percent believe the country is on the right track.

“It has been a long, difficult road back,” said one of her top aides. “But we have gotten to a point where the refugee issue is no longer a negative for Merkel in the election campaign.”

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A decision by Macedonia in early 2016 to shut its border with Greece stemmed the flow of refugees, easing pressure on Germany. And the country has not suffered a large-scale Islamist attack, an event which might have triggered a voter backlash.

But Merkel’s knack for understanding how Germans tick has also been crucial.

At many of her public appearances, she is confronted by anti-immigration protesters who try to drown out her speeches with whistles and chants of “Merkel must go!”.

In Steinhude, a woman held up a sign showing Merkel’s diamond-shaped hand pose over a German flag with a blood-spattered bullet hole in the middle. “I offer you terror, death and chaos”, the sign read.

But the dozen or so protesters were dwarfed by supporters who applauded her message.

“I‘m not sure if there was another way to handle the refugee crisis. Those refugees had to go somewhere,” said Willi Kordes, 70, who runs a sewage treatment firm in nearby Vlotho. “I don’t trust anyone to do it better.”

Working in her favour in the election is the fact that many of Germany’s other established parties, including the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), led by her main challenger Martin Schulz, backed her open-door policy.

The AfD, running a racially-tinged campaign that has put off some voters, has come off its 2016 highs in the polls. The one mainstream party that has offered a hardline alternative, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). A vote for the CSU is akin to a vote for Merkel.

Related readingDirty work

A crucial factor behind Merkel’s rebound has been the decline in asylum seekers entering Germany. About 280,000 arrived in 2016, with another drop likely this year.

Merkel takes credit for this, pointing to a deal she brokered between the European Union and Turkey, under which Ankara has cut the number of migrants crossing into Europe via its territory.

But critics say the closing of Balkan borders — which Merkel publicly opposed — was the real driver.

Some see parallels with her behavior in the euro zone financial crisis, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s pledge to do “whatever it takes” to keep the currency bloc together, allowing her to stick to a hard line towards euro states such as Greece without fear of consequences.

In the refugee crisis, it has been countries like Macedonia, Turkey and Hungary – which shut down routes the refugees used – that have done Merkel’s “dirty work”, allowing her to maintain the image of a caring leader who helped people fleeing war.

The approach has helped Merkel extend her control over the political centre. Some right-wing voters may have fled for the AfD but polls suggest young, urban voters who traditionally lean left could fill the gap.

Germany’s economy has been strong enough to absorb the influx of refugees without big cracks emerging in society. In reaction to its Nazi past, Germany has emerged as a more open, tolerant country than many assumed when the crisis hit.

A survey published this month ranking the top fears of the Germans put terrorism at the top. But a separate poll for the Bild newspaper showed they do not see curbing immigration as a priority.

“Germans are astonishingly global, liberal and open to the world,” said Menno Smid, head of the Infas Institute for Applied Social Sciences, which released a survey last month showing broad acceptance of refugees in Germany. “We are the winners from globalisation. The economic factors that led to Trump simply don’t exist.”

Same-sex marriage by end of year: Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull has joined past and present NSW premiers in supporting the “yes” vote in the upcoming same-sex marriage survey.

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The prime minister told NSW Liberals and Nationals for the Yes campaign launch in Sydney he’ll be voting yes and same-sex marriage could be legalised by the end of the year.

If the majority of Australians also vote yes, a private member’s bill will be presented which will “sail through the parliament”, Mr Turnbull said on Sunday.

“Fundamentally this is a question of fairness,” he said.

He is “utterly unpersuaded” by the idea that his 38-year-long marriage to wife Lucy is undermined by gay couples.

“The threat to marriage is not gay couples, it is a lack of loving commitment,” he said.

“Whether it is found in the form of neglect, indifference, cruelty or adultery.

“If the threat to marriage today is lack of commitment then surely other couples making and maintaining a commitment sets a good rather than a bad example.”

Mr Turnbull noted other countries where same-sex marriage has been legalised.

“In any one of those nations has the sky fallen in, has life as we know it ground to a halt, has traditional marriage been undermined and the answer is plainly no,” he said.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said alongside former NSW premiers Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell and previous party leaders Kerry Chikarovski, Peter Debnam and John Brogden at the event.

Mr O’Farrell said love is a pursuit that’s far more important than politics.

“As a supporter of marriage I want marriage to be on offer to every loving couple in this country,” he said.

“In answer to Tina Turner’s question, for me this issue has got everything to do about love.”

Tony Abbott’s sister, Councillor Christine Forster, reflected on a traditional wedding she attended on Saturday where the priest spoke at length about marriage binding two people together.

“In all of that sermon he did not say one thing to that congregation that said this cannot be between two men or two women,” she said at the launch.

“It is just about two people.

“That’s what this whole discussion is about.”

Ms Forster spoke of her decision to marry fiancee Virginia at the British Consulate at Circular Quay in February 2018.

She was hopeful same-sex marriage would be legalised by the end of the year, meaning the pair can instead be married under Australian law.

“That is what we want to do and that is what so many other Australians want to do.”

Anderson reclaims top Test bowler status

James Anderson has leapt to the top spot in the International Cricket Council Test bowling rankings after a scintillating display in the nine-wicket win over West Indies at Lord’s.

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Anderson delivered a swing bowling masterclass as he recorded career-best figures of 7-42 in the second innings — which included his 500th Test scalp — to steer England towards victory in the series decider.

The 35-year-old’s nine-wicket match haul resulted in him leapfroggoing India left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja to reclaim the number one spot he last held in August last year.

He is now the oldest bowler to go to the rankings summit since Sri Lanka spinner Muttiah Muralitharan in July 2009, capping a memorable summer for the Lancastrian, who has taken 39 wickets in seven Tests at an astonishing average of 14.1.

Australia captain Steve Smith has retained his place at the top of the batting ranks despite an average of just 29.75 in the drawn two-match series in Bangladesh.

Shakib Al Hasan continues to top the allrounder rankings after taking 12 wickets against Australia in two Tests and adding 115 runs in four innings.

India is the No.1 team in the Test standings ahead of South Africa and England. Australia is fifth behind New Zealand.

TEST BATTING RANKINGS

1. Steve Smith 936

2. Joe Root 889

3. Kane Williamson 880

4. Cheteshwar Pujara 876

5. David Warner 807

TEST BOWLING RANKINGS

1. James Anderson 896

2. Ravindra Jadeja 884

3. Ravichandran Ashwin 852

4. Rangana Herath 809

5. Josh Hazlewood 794

TEST ALLROUNDER RANKINGS

1. Shakib Al Hasan 455

2. Ravindra Jadeja 429

3. Ravichandran Ashwin 421

4. Ben Stokes 395

5. Moeen Ali 378

Cowboys end Sharks’ NRL title defence

Cronulla’s premiership defence is over after a dramatic 15-14 extra-time defeat by North Queensland in Sunday’s elimination NRL final.

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A year after Cronulla ended the Cowboys’ own title defence in a preliminary final, the visiting side returned the favour at the same Allianz Stadium venue.

With the scores locked at 14-all in the 85th minute, Cowboys star Michael Morgan potted a 15-metre field goal for their first lead of the match.

The Sharks pressed for the second period of extra time but Paul Green’s men continued to show the resolve that has defined their latter half of the year.

The Cowboys now advance to face Parramatta in next Saturday’s semi-final at ANZ Stadium, while Cronulla are the latest to fall victim to back-to-back title shots.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan took the rare step of reading out a list of his grievances with the referees after the match.

“I thought we were brave. I thought both teams played some tough footy,” he said.

“We were a bit clunky when we got in there, we turned the ball over once or twice when we got in good field position.

“I thought it was a good game, just disappointed in how the result came about.”

But twice the Sharks bombed eight-point leads, and the Cowboys again showed the courage that has defined their season in spite of key injuries.

Cronulla, who have the worst handling efficiency of the year, didn’t help themselves with a typically porous 63 per cent completion rate.

Without co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, the visitors refused to roll over when the Sharks threatened to run away in front of the 16,115 crowd.

They took an 8-2 lead at halftime on Chad Townsend’s early try, however, went into the sheds down a man after Maloney’s sin-binning.

The Sharks five-eighth was ruled to have taken out a chasing Ethan Lowe moments before the break.

Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt reduced the deficit early in the second half, but the Sharks restored their lead when Jack Bird latched onto a Townsend grubber.

Down 14-6 with 17 minutes to go, Jason Taumalolo carried four defenders over in the 63rd minute before Lowe nailed a clutch penalty four minutes from fulltime.

“We were never supposed to win that game,” Cowboys coach Paul Green said.

“Even during the game we created some opportunities that we didn’t quite ice.

“There’s plenty of improvement left in us too, which is good.

“Typical of the year we’ve had — plenty of guts, plenty of character.”

UK doesn’t need Brexit to curb EU immigration, says former PM Blair

Concerns over the impact of high levels of immigration on public services and housing were cited as a factor by many who voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government has said free movement of EU citizens coming to Britain must end.

Many Brexit supporters blame Blair’s government, which allowed citizens of former communist states to settle immediately in Britain despite a long transition period implemented by other EU countries, for a big influx of EU migrants from 2004.

“There is no diversion possible from Brexit without addressing the grievances that gave rise to it. Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it,” Blair, who has said Brexit can and should be stopped, wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper.

“We can curtail the things that people feel are damaging about European immigration, both by domestic policy change and by agreeing change within Europe to the freedom of movement principle,” added Blair, who led a Labour government for a decade from 1997.

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Asked about Blair’s proposals, defence minister Michael Fallon said the government had to get on with delivering Brexit.

“The country has taken its decision, we are leaving the European Union now and that means freedom of movement has to end … there have got to be restrictions on those coming here,” he told BBC Television.

A leaked government document last week said Britain was considering measures to restrict immigration for all but the highest-skilled EU workers, plans some companies called alarming.

A paper published on Sunday by Blair’s Institute for Global Change said the government could take steps including registering EU migrants when they arrive to keep track of whether they meet EU rules about finding work.

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EU migrants could also be forced to show evidence of a job offer before being allowed to enter Britain, and those without permission to reside could be banned from renting, opening a bank account or accessing welfare benefits, it said.

The paper also proposes seeking an ’emergency brake’ to implement temporary controls on migration when services are stretched — a strengthened version of a deal offered to former Prime Minister David Cameron ahead of the referendum.

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