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German ‘grand coalition’ talks give hope to refugees who want to reunite with their families

Refugees in Greece seeking reunification with family in Germany. Orestis Panagiotou/EPA

Germany’s two biggest political parties are heading back to the negotiating table in search of a new “grand coalition”. The talks between Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD), are only happening because of the disintegration of an earlier attempt to build a coalition following the September election.

Part of the reason for the breakdown in talks to form a “Jamaica coalition” including the left-of-centre, environmentalist Green party hinged upon the thorny issue of whether to allow refugees with close family outside Germany to bring them to the country. In 2015, the German government – a coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD – introduced a temporary ban on family reunification.

But with coalition talks back on, it’s possible the SPD will now push hard for a relaxation of strict rules on family reunification.

The breakdown of the Jamaica coalition talks in late November between the CDU-CSU, the Greens, and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) came as no surprise. The FDP is relatively sceptical of European integration and prefers a gradual approach to the phasing out of coal production, placing it at odds with the Greens. But it was the party’s conservative stance on family reunification which proved to be the main sticking point.

Merkel’s decision to allow in up to a million refugees hardened attitudes towards migrants in German society. In the September election, the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) performed beyond expectations – achieving Bundestag representation for the first time with 12.6% of the vote. The AfD’s culturally preservationist, anti-Islam message won over more than a million voters from the CSU/CDU, along with 510,000 voters from the SPD.

For and against

The issue of whether to lift the temporary ban divided the CDU, CSU and FDP on one side, and the Greens on the other.

The Greens want the ban to be lifted, and made it a central part of their ask in the Jamaica coalition talks. Leading Green politician Claudia Roth highlighted the psychological distress suffered by Germany’s new refugees. While new refugees are safe in Germany, wives and children remain in war-torn, unstable areas across countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The worry is that restricting family reunification could seriously hamper the integration of new refugees into mainstream society, and even generate resentment towards the German state.

Projected numbers for family reunification are disputed. Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière suggested that lifting the ban would lead to a similar surge to that witnessed in 2015. Alternatively, the Institute for Employment Research predicted that no more than 60,000 family members would arrive in Germany if the restrictions were lifted.

Ultra-conservative elements of the CDU/CSU bloc want the ban maintained. This is unsurprising when taking into account the right-wing populist AfD’s inroads into its traditional core vote. With 92 seats in the Bundestag, the AfD is the third-biggest party, followed by the FDP with 80 seats.

Talks for a new grand coalition

In early December, Merkel’s group opened coalition talks with SPD, led by the former president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz. But the SPD is a party riven by internal tensions which suffered at the ballot box in September, winning just 20.5% of the vote. It desperately requires a period in opposition to reassess and regroup, free from the everyday pressures of governing Germany.

Martin Schulz: back at the top table. Hayoung Jeon/EPA

What a future grand coalition means for family reunification remains to be seen. The return of the FDP and the AfD’s spectacular entry into the Bundestag represented a clear rejection of the previous CDU/CSU-SPD government – one which presided over the entry of a million refugees from the Muslim world.

The CDU/CSU conservative bloc haemorrhaged 2.66m votes to the FDP and AfD. The numbers also suggest that the AfD’s hardline position on refugees and migration won over sections of the SPD’s traditional “blue-collar” vote. But from 2013, the SPD also lost 700,000 voters to the far-left Die Linke and a further 760,000 to the Greens. These two progressive rival parties fleshed out compassionate visions for future refugee, migration and asylum policy.

The SPD’s rejection of an “upper limit” on family reunification agreed upon by the CDU/CSU alliance can be seen as an attempt to re-establish itself as the standard-bearers for a modern, cosmopolitan, compassionate Germany.

A renewal of the grand coalition would see the AfD become Germany’s largest opposition party in the Bundestag. And if the CDU/CSU-SPD government relaxed restrictions on family reunification for recent Muslim refugees, it could be just the ammunition the AfD craves to help consolidate its position as the true anti-establishment force in German politics – the self-ordained “Defenders of the Fatherland”.

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