Migration: Angela Merkel's first hurdle to forming a coalition

Among German Chancellor Merkel's biggest challenges to building a new coalition government with the Free Democrats and Greens will be migration and refugee policies. Migration fears helped push voters toward the AfD.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces the task of negotiating a coalition of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) with the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, finding a way to get the parties to agree on common migration and refugee policies will likely prove to be her biggest challenge. And success will be far from assured.

"The truth is, there is an arithmetical majority, but the four parties each have their own election mandates. Whether these can be allied without contradiction and in the interests of the country remains to be seen," FDP head Christian Lindner told Die Welt newspaper on Wednesday.

Read more: Where do German parties stand on refugees, asylum and immigration?


Colorful shorthand for German coalitions

Coalitions are common under Germany's proportional representation system. To describe complex ballot outcomes, political pundits use colorful symbolism, often alluding to the flags of other nations. Coalition short-hand includes 'Jamaica,' 'Kenya,' and 'traffic light' coalitions.


'Jamaica' option - black, yellow and green

The three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow will not be happening at national level after the FDP called off talks. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein currently has a "Jamaica" government, as CDU premier Daniel Günther governs with the FDP and the Greens.


Black-red coalition

Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Yellow on these billboards alludes to Germany's tricolor flag of black, red and gold. Black tops the flag, signifying Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust.


'Pizza Connection' in Bonn, before parliament moved to Berlin

When Bonn was still Germany's capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the 'Pizza Connection' has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, in Hesse's Wiesbaden assembly, Merkel's CDU and Greens have governed together since 2014. Baden-Württemburg's Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.


Another untried combination: Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya's flag

So far, a 'Kenyan' coalition has only emerged once at regional state level - last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. Premier Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's conservatives forged a coalition comprising his conservative CDU, the battered SPD and the region's Greens.


'Traffic light' coalition

The market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. A current example is Rhineland Palatinate's three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.


Center-left combinations in three eastern states

Red-red-green coalitions exist in two German regions: since last September in Berlin city state and since 2014 in Thuringia. It's Erfurt-based government is headed by Left party premier Bodo Ramelow, seen signing (third from left). Berlin's three-way mix is headed by Social Democrat Michael Müller. Brandenburg has a two-way coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the Left party.

The so-called Jamaica coalition, named because the parties' colors of black, yellow and green correspond to the Caribbean country's flag, would need to overcome vast ideological and policy differences to unite as a stable government. So what are the potential stumbling blocks toward an agreement on migration?       

Read more: German election: Can the Greens and FDP join Angela Merkel in a coalition?

The Free Democrats

In an interview with DW ahead of the election, Lindner alluded to the uncertainty which concerned many in Germany following the arrival of more than a million people seeking asylum in 2015 and 2016.

"We've got to get a grip on the situation. That's one of the cornerstones for any coalition, There have got to be changes in our immigration policy," he said.

The FDP's migration policy states there be no maximum number of people granted asylum due to persecution. It advocates creating a new category of humanitarian protection for refugees who have fled war zones and other dangerous situations, which would require them to leave Germany when there was peace in their home countries.

For this, he also declined to name an upper limit for the number of people who could be taken in each year but said a limit could be imposed if the country's capacity to accept them in became strained.

Read more: FDP: Are Germany's 'liberals' in reality 'libertarians'?

Related Subjects

The Greens

Though the Greens differ vastly from the FDP when it comes to many economic matters, their positions on refugees, asylum and migration are similar in many ways.

The Greens are strongly opposed to an upper limit for asylum seekers, calling it an "absolute no-go."

Like the FDP, they want to introduce a points-based, Canada style immigration policy and the possibility for people who arrived in Germany as asylum seekers to be able to apply to stay on as regular migrants under the points system.

However, unlike the FDP, the Greens do not believe Afghanistan is safe enough to deport rejected asylum seekers. They also called for family reunification for recognized refugees, which have been paused by Merkel's government, to resume, saying their party's "political compass" was oriented toward protection for refugees and human rights.

Read more: Germany's Green party: How it evolved

"In a coalition with us, just like with the CDU and the FDP, there will be no upper limit for refugees. The CSU must adapt to that if they seriously want to explore a Jamaica coalition," Greens chair Simone Peter told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Wednesday.

The Christian Social Union

It's the Christian Democrats' longtime allies, their Bavarian sister party the CSU, that may prove Merkel's biggest headache to forming a deal on migration.

The CSU wants a limit of 200,000 migrants a year. Bavaria was the main entry point for people seeking asylum in Germany via the Balkan route in 2015. Merkel has consistently ruled out a cap and the pressure on her has eased as the number of people arriving in Germany has sunk.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who has clashed with Merkel on migration policy, said he had agreed with the chancellor to approach possible coalition talks with a united front, but added they had to respond to voters' concerns. The CSU lost more than 10 percentage points in Bavaria, hemorrhaging voters to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany which advocated closed borders and adopted anti-migrant rhetoric.

Read more: Angela Merkel's Bavarian allies CSU threaten rightward shift

CSU deputy Manfred Weber said that despite differences with the other potential partners, he still thought a Jamaica coalition was possible.

"We'll sit together and talk with each other," Weber told the Bayern 3 radio station on Wednesday morning. "We need a policy that takes account of people's concerns," he said, echoing similar statements from other leading CSU figures including Seehofer.

The prospect of losing further support to the AfD in a state election next year is also a factor pushing the CSU to dig in its heels on migration issues.

Illustration Jamaika-Koalition

Three-way handshakes are awkward. Four-way even more so. Can Merkel make a Jamaica coalition work?

Lessons from the north?

The current CDU premier in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where a Jamaica coalition has been in force since June, saw room for compromise. Daniel Günther pointed out that the CDU had done well in other state elections post-2015 without insisting on a refugee cap and that stricter policies enacted since then had kept the number of asylum-seeker arrivals below the CSU's proposed limit anyway. However, he warned against aiming for blanket unity across all issues. 

"The secret to our success was that every party accepted that, for such a coalition to work, individual parties needed to have clear victories in certain points," Günter told Deutschlandfunk radio on Wednesday.