BERLIN – Chancellor Angela Merkel's migrant troubles have reignited in the new year but the German leader is sticking to her guns, insisting her country will manage the challenge and that diplomacy can bring solutions.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year, and 2,000 to 3,000 are still arriving daily even in mid-winter.
A surge of robberies and sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne — and the fact that some of the suspects were asylum-seekers — have highlighted the difficulty of integrating so many newcomers. With pressure mounting for the government to manage the influx, Merkel's Bavarian allies are once again pushing for a cap on asylum-seekers.
Public opinion toward refugees has been souring for months in Germany, although polls suggest political support for Merkel's conservatives is down only slightly. While Germany doesn't hold a national election until late 2017, smaller votes this year — starting with three state elections in March — will offer a test of the mood.
"The events of New Year's Eve have again shone a spotlight on the challenges we face, made them clear from a new side we had not viewed so far," Merkel acknowledged. Within days, her government proposed legislation to make it easier to deport criminal foreigners.
On the refugee influx itself, however, Merkel is standing firm — sticking to her much-criticized mantra that "we will manage it."
The woman chosen as Time's person of the year insists that the solution is not to unilaterally close borders, but to work with reluctant European partners, Turkey and others to secure Europe's frontiers and share the burden of hosting refugees. That has been the central plank of her approach even as the government has tightened policy at home — taking steps to make it easier to send migrants from Balkan nations home and making clear that not all Afghans will be allowed to stay.
Whether Merkel will have any more success in Europe in 2016 than last year is questionable.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, an outspoken opponent of compulsory refugee quotas, said after the Cologne assaults that migrants can't be integrated and "we don't want what happened in Germany to happen here."
Merkel has pledged to reduce the influx but resisted calls to set a specific limit on the number of refugees Germany can take. She rallied her conservative party behind her stance a month ago, heading off calls for a cap by conceding that an unabated influx would "overburden" the country in the long run.
But after a few weeks' peace, her allies in the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union — her most prominent domestic critics over recent months — renewed their drive for tougher border controls and for a cap. The party's leader, governor Horst Seehofer, suggested an annual figure of 200,000 asylum-seekers, and grumbling has resurfaced in Merkel's own party.
Yet Merkel isn't budging and won't say by when she aims to get the numbers down.
"It wouldn't be right to name the exact day," she said. "We are working at high pressure on a sustainable reduction."
Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said Europe has only "finite" time to secure its external borders but wouldn't give a date. The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung argued in an editorial that if things don't change by midyear, Merkel will have to declare a partial, temporary halt to admitting migrants.
The first electoral test since the refugee crisis escalated last summer comes on March 13.
In principle, there's much to gain for Merkel's party in three state elections. It aims to win back a traditional stronghold, the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, after five years under a liberal government. In neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, it hopes to end the center-left Social Democrats' 25 years at the helm; and in eastern Saxony-Anhalt, it looks well-placed to keep the governor's office.
Still, lackluster conservative results or a strong performance by the upstart Alternative for Germany party could increase the pressure on Merkel.
Alternative for Germany appeared to be fading last summer after its founding leader was ousted amid a switch from a euro-skeptic to an anti-immigration stance. It has since been bolstered by the huge migrant influx.
"While Merkel lulls the population with the empty phrase 'we will manage it,' it is now clear that she is not even able to protect women from attacks in public places," deputy leader Alexander Gauland said.
The direct impact on opinion polls of the Cologne assaults appears so far to be limited, though one survey showed Merkel's popularity sliding again. National polls in the past week have put support for Alternative for Germany between 9 and 11 percent, at most a point or two higher than late last year, with Merkel's Union bloc at 37 or 38 percent — its losses so far within the margin of error.
Still, Carsten Linnemann, a lawmaker with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union who has been critical of her open-ended approach, says "the mood among the grassroots is dreadful."
A telephone survey of 1,203 people conducted Jan. 12-14 for ZDF television found that 33 percent said the assaults had significantly changed their attitudes toward asylum and refugee issues, while 66 percent said they hadn't.
At the same time, 60 percent said that Germany can't cope with the many migrants who are arriving — up from 46 percent last month — and the number dissatisfied with Merkel's work on the refugee issue rose to 56 percent from 49. Despite those concerns, 57 percent said Seehofer's proposal for a refugee cap wasn't feasible. The poll gave a margin of error of plus or minus three points.
There is, however, no sign of any internal challenger to Merkel — and the more liberal Social Democrats, with whom Merkel currently runs Germany in a coalition, are so far behind in national polls that they seem unlikely to mount a serious challenge any time soon.
Manfred Guellner, the head of the Forsa polling agency, cautioned against overestimating the strength of the populist right. He argued that Alternative for Germany has become a "catchment basin" for people with anti-foreigner beliefs but doesn't have potential to climb higher, and could well fall back.
He also said Merkel's difficulties shouldn't be overstated.
"I think Merkel will still be with us for a few years," he said.