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Merkel’s refugee U-turn: blunder or pressure tactic?

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An asylum-seeker takes a "selfie" with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to a refugee camp in Berlin on September 10, 2015/AFP

An asylum-seeker takes a “selfie” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to a refugee camp in Berlin on September 10, 2015/AFP

BERLIN, Germany, Sep 14 – Just two weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel won praise from Washington to Wellington for her bold decision to throw open Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war.

But just as suddenly, Berlin announced a complete U-turn, saying Sunday it was reinstating border controls and abiding by asylum rules that it had essentially waived for Syrians.

The authorities, admitting that capacity had been stretched to the limit by the tens of thousands of new arrivals, called for a return to a more orderly situation.

Analysts on Monday derided the abrupt move, with the left-leaning Tageszeitung calling it an “absurd about-turn”, and conservative Die Welt questioning whether “the German refugee policy had really been well thought through”.

“Angela Merkel risks undoing the very impression she has been basking in for the past few days – of an unbureaucratic, caring Germany, showing up the restrictive policies of other EU countries,” Tageszeitung wrote.

Merkel’s foreign detractors also gloated at her government’s change of heart, with Henri Guaino, a former aide of ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, jumping on the opportunity to criticise her plan to welcome 800,000 refugees.

“She did that without consulting her partners, without consulting her neighbours, without worrying about the consequences,” he said.

And Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s anti-migrant party UKIP, tweeted: “By shutting border with Austria, is clear that German government have realised the scale of their error.”

For about two weeks, Merkel and her allies had boldly insisted that they could keep the crisis under control.

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Riding on a wave of euphoria that also helped mobilise thousands of volunteers to join in the country’s biggest post-war refugee relief effort, cabinet ministers sang from the same hymnsheet.

But reality on the ground soon caught up.

Local authorities particularly in the prosperous and conservative southern region of Bavaria have been complaining for months that they were struggling to handle the record inflow of migrants.

When the steady influx suddenly turned into a huge wave of 20,000 people arriving over a weekend in the regional capital Munich, an open rebellion erupted within Merkel’s own conservative camp, with her Bavarian allies at the CSU calling her policy a monumental disaster.

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