German chancellor Angela Merkel vowed at a congress of her conservative party to reduce substantially the number of migrants entering Germany, responding to rank-and-file concerns about the influx of 1m refugees this year alone.
Despite being named person of the year by both Time magazine and the Financial Times for her bold response to the crisis, Merkel faces growing opposition at home to her open-door refugee policy and has begun hardening her position.
She told her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) that the decision in August to welcome the refugees fleeing war and deprivation in the Middle East was a “humanitarian imperative”, but she also vowed to stem the flow.
“We want to, and we will, noticeably reduce the number of refugees,” she said to rapturous applause at the congress in Karlsruhe, in the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which holds a state election next March.
Merkel received an eight-minute standing ovation at the end of her speech to roughly 1,000 CDU delegates in a vast conference centre adorned with massive posters reading “for Germany and Europe”.
Her use of the phrase “noticeably reduce” came directly from a resolution the CDU leadership hastily reworked on the eve of the congress to head off an open rebellion over her refugee policy.
In the updated resolution, the party leadership added: “A continuation of the current influx would in the long-term overwhelm the state and society, even in a country like Germany.”
Merkel defended her catchphrase of “we can do this” during the refugee crisis by saying the party must show its Christian roots, and she likened it to pledges made by former conservative chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl in troubled times.
She said Adenauer’s declaration during the Cold War that “we vote for freedom” and Kohl’s promise of “flourishing landscapes” after reunification had both come true, adding that Germany could similarly deliver on the “we can do this” pledge.
“Germany should be a country that is open, curious, tolerant, and even exciting,” Merkel said, painting an upbeat vision for the future and stressing how far the country had come since she took power a decade ago.
“Ten years ago things were not good,” she said.
“Europe was deeply divided over the Iraq war.
“In Germany, we had 5m unemployed. People spoke of German angst, we were the sick man of Europe.”
Merkel, a Protestant pastor’s daughter who grew up in communist East Germany, has seen support for her party fall since the refugee crisis erupted in the late summer.
A poll by Emnid on Sunday put support for her conservative alliance of the CDU and their Bavarian allies at 37%, down from 43% in mid-August.