Merkel gives in on refugees. Timor-Leste warned of fiscal crisis. Mexico elects left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. US chasing Kim Jong-un on nuclear promises. By Hamish McDonald.

Merkel gives in on refugee turnbacks

Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, addresses supporters in Mexico City last week.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, addresses supporters in Mexico City last week.
Credit: Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images

It is the season of turnbacks and about-faces in Europe, as its political leaders variously try to contain or ride popular resentment against undocumented migrants.

On Tuesday, Germany’s Angela Merkel agreed to set up camps for asylum seekers and to authorise border police to turn away refugees who had already registered in another country.

It was a humiliating choice for Merkel, who had previously argued that such border checks, bound to be adopted by other countries in turn, would threaten the free movement of people inside the so-called Schengen area of the European Union.

She made it because her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, threatened to resign and take his Bavarian-based conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), out of the coalition Merkel had put together around her Christian Democratic Union, much diminished in last September’s elections.

The two sister parties, their alliance long the bedrock of centre-right politics in Germany, have been moving apart in recent years, as Merkel shut down nuclear power stations, abolished military service and in 2015 welcomed a million refugees from Syria and other war zones.

Seehofer and the CSU, which faces elections in Bavaria later in the year, is being drawn further rightwards by the rising influence of the hard-right party Alternative for Germany, which gained its first seats in the federal parliament last year.

The migrant flow into Europe is down sharply from its 2015 peak, but Seehofer seems to feel the need for hardline symbolism. He rejected a deal hammered out at an EU summit the week before, which Merkel had hoped would paper over the dispute. The leaders agreed migrants rescued from the Mediterranean would be distributed among member countries, taking the pressure off Italy. But they could not set quotas, with central European states resisting mandatory intakes.

But if the Germans start turning people away at their borders, where to? Merkel and Seehofer were in talks on Thursday with the governments of Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, both elected on keeping migrants out. Orbán has even made helping undocumented migrants a criminal offence for Hungarians.

Another part of the EU effort to cope with the flows is to set up processing centres in North African countries, and get them to crack down on people smugglers.

One country has taken this cooperation to a cruel level. The Associated Press reported that Algeria has turned back more than 13,000 people during the past 14 months, forcing them at gunpoint to walk southwards across the Sahara desert. They included pregnant women and children, sent without food or water. Survivors stumbled out of the desert at the border with Niger after days of walking, with tales of others left to die in the sands.

Waiting for the sun

Timor-Leste achieved a great victory at The Hague earlier this year, with a hugely increased share of the Greater Sunrise gas field, and vindication over its shabby treatment by the Australian government, reported elsewhere in this paper.

It could all be a pyrrhic victory, however, with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund warning its government would fall off a “fiscal cliff” mid next decade unless it either gets Greater Sunrise into production or drastically cuts back on public spending.

It took several weeks from the May 12 elections for a government to form, and it is yet unclear whether it can handle the economic issues. Taur Matan Ruak, the former president and armed forces commander, has become prime minister at the head of a coalition of three parties, with the former ruling Fretilin party going into opposition.

In the new government coalition, former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT party has 21 of the 34 seats, and Gusmão is listed second in the ministerial ranking with the title minister of state – counsellor of the prime minister.

As president in 2015 and 2016, Ruak vetoed a budget put up by Gusmão’s government and criticised it for cronyism. He now opposes Gusmão’s scheme of multibillion-dollar industrial projects that anticipate gas pipelined from Great Sunrise, which have been pushed despite near-universal technical advice that the pipeline is impossible to lay across a 3000-metre-deep seabed trench and that a floating LNG plant or a pipeline to Darwin are more feasible. As chief of the guerilla resistance against Indonesian occupation following Gusmão’s capture, the new prime minister may have the prestige to back the government away from this folly.

South of Obrador

Mexicans gave leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador the presidency last Sunday with the largest margin since the country transitioned from seven decades of ossified rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2000.

They had tried a conservative – Vicente Fox – and then gone back to the PRI for the past 12 years. López Obrador is now charged with pursuing his goals of reducing poverty, corruption and the violence of the drug wars (2017 was the deadliest on record, with 29,168 homicides or 20.5 per 100,000 people).

There are many who think him doomed to failure and his voters to disappointment, unlikely to reap the billions he says are diverted by corruption. But he is unlikely to be a radical populist like the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. López Obrador has promised not to expand Mexico’s debt and to preserve relations with the United States. However, he will be more feisty with Donald Trump, unlikely to suffer humiliations and insults as quietly as outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto.

Bear hug

It’s not yet peace in our time with North Korea, according to a torrent of leaks out of the US intelligence community in recent days that suggest its regime is continuing uranium enrichment, expanding a plant that makes long-range missiles, and preparing to hide some of its nuclear weapons from inspection.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was heading to Pyongyang this week on his third visit, with the task of getting Kim Jong-un to clarify what he means by the de-nuclearisation he promised Trump at their June 12 meeting in Singapore, in response to Trump’s decision to halt “provocative” war games in South Korea. Trump expects Kim to confirm that everything nuclear will go. “I made a deal with him,” he said, although he added that he’d been in deals where “people didn’t work out”.

It’s a possible foretaste of what to expect when Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin for their first bilateral summit in Helsinki on July 16. Trump is said to want a one-on-one meeting with Putin, such as he had with Kim in Singapore, without any note-takers to take an official record, nor any advisers to guide them. Putin is agreeable to that.

Advance team members said Trump wants to establish a personal relationship with Putin so they can come out declaring themselves “buddies”. Some worry that, to form such a bond of friendship, Trump might concede the Russian annexation of Crimea or cut back US forces in Europe.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 7, 2018 as "Merkel gives in on refugee turnbacks".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription