|Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term in federal elections scheduled for 24 September. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images|
Angela Merkel has said she has no regrets about her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and insisted she will not be deterred by angry hecklers from campaigning for re-election next month.
In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday, the chancellor denied she had made any mistakes with her open-door policy, even though the arrival of a million refugees over the last two years from Syria and Iraq opened deep rifts in her conservative party and weakened its support.
Four weeks before the 24 September election, an Emnid opinion poll on Sunday showed Merkel’s conservatives would win 38% of the vote, putting them 15 points ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). That was up from 32% in February but well below the 41.5% her party won in the last election, in 2013.
“I’d make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again,” Merkel said. “It was an extraordinary situation and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint.”
Her decision to open the borders contributed to a surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which pollsters say could win up to 10% of the vote next month.
Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term, has had to contend with loud and sustained heckling from demonstrators strongly opposed to her refugee policies. The volume and intensity of the protests have been especially strong in her home region in formerly communist eastern Germany. But Merkel said she would not be kept away from areas where animosity towards her runs high.
“We’re a democracy and everyone can freely express themselves in public the way they want,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t go out of our way to avoid certain areas only because there are a bunch of people screaming.“
Support for Merkel and her party has recovered somewhat after the number of refugees arriving slowed to 280,000 in 2016 and fell even further to about 106,000 in the first seven months of this year.
In September last year, Merkel took responsibility for her party’s disastrous showing in Berlin’s state election, admitting mistakes had been made in the open doors policy.
In an unusually self-critical but also combative speech, the chancellor said she would fight to make sure there would be no repetition of the chaotic scenes on Germany’s borders in 2015, when “for some time we didn’t have enough control”. “No one wants a repeat of last year’s situation, including me,” Merkel said.
However, she did not distance herself from her decision to keep open Germany’s borders to thousands of refugees stranded at Keleti station in Budapest. The mistake, the chancellor said, was that she and her government had not been quicker to prepare for the mass movement of people triggered by conflicts in the Middle East.
On Sunday, Merkel said it was unfair that Greece and Italy had been left on their own carrying the full burden of the refugee crisis “simply because of their geography“. She said she would not stop pushing for the fair distribution of refugees across the European Union.
“That some countries refuse to accept any refugees is not on. That contradicts the spirit of Europe. We’ll overcome that. It will take time and patience but we will succeed.”