Angela Merkel has two weeks to hold central Germany together
Last week, a dispute over immigration policy brought Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), their Bavarian conservative partners, to the brink of divorce. “I can’t work with this woman anymore!” An angry Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s interior minister, mocked the Chancellor for his proposal to turn migrants registered in other EU countries back to Germany’s borders. Open hostility flew between CDU and CSU MPs, who sit in the same parliamentary group, in the halls of the Bundestag as the Bavarians refused to back down, pouring scorn on the Chancellor’s demand for two week to find a “European solution”.
But the weekend cooled heads and now détente broke out. A meeting of the CSU leadership in Munich yesterday gave Mr. Seehofer the blessing to impose the new border system against Mrs. Merkel’s wishes (whether the wording of the German constitution gives him the right to do so), but he agreed that he would debate. not working on this for two weeks, waiting to see the outcome of the Chancellor’s European negotiations. She claimed for her the permission of her interior minister to turn back refugees who had been banned from Germany; although that measure is already largely in effect.
The dispute is now stable, but not yet resolved. The CSU remains skeptical of the chancellor’s ability, at the EU summit on 28 and 29 June, to create a long-stalled deal setting up the Dublin system governing immigration to the EU, which will transfer responsibility for the registration and processing of immigrants to the member state where they are. come first The Bavarians, whose state straddles Austria and is therefore the main point of entry for those traveling north from Greece or Italy, accuse the southern European states of to pass through “asylum tourists” to Germany.
Mr Seehofer is considering the long-term solution of “anchor centres”, centralized immigration camps currently operating in Bavaria, where applicants can be monitored and quickly deported if denied the right to stay. Until they are distributed throughout the country, he believes that the only answer is to deny entry to Germany to those registered elsewhere in the EU. It is questionable how practical this would be. The logistics of crossing, say, the 815km long German-Austrian border, with around 70 road crossings, is daunting. It is not certain whether Austria would accept those who were refused entry by Germany again. Vienna could simply close its southern borders, triggering what Mrs Merkel described yesterday as a “domino effect”: a catastrophic wave of unilateral border policies bringing down the country’s free movement system Europe. But the CSU’s aims are more than just practical: the party is also nervously eyeing the state election in Bavaria in October, where the far-right choice for Germany threatens the traditional hegemony of the a party
What now? Mrs Merkel’s “European solution” will involve seeking bilateral deals with southern European states such as Italy, Greece and Bulgaria to ensure that immigrants from Germany are taken quickly and automatically back to the states where they were originally registered. These will not come easily: such countries feel that they already bear an unfair share of the immigration burden. Indeed Italy’s new populist government, and especially Matteo Salvini, its hard-line interior minister, is determined to reduce this burden at almost any cost. The Chancellor will surely have to get out her chequebook. In her press conference yesterday she suggested that she sees her repatriation deal with Turkey, which helped reduce the flow of immigrants to Germany, as a template.
After the EU summit late next week Mrs Merkel is expected to present her achievements back in Berlin on 1 July. It will then be up to the CSU to decide whether to accept them as substitutes for the threatened border policy, or whether Mr Seehofer should intervene unilaterally. The harsh speech made by the minister of the interior in the past days has left him little room to go back; he is at least under pressure from Markus Söder, his long-time rival and the current prime minister of Bavaria, and Alexander Dobrindt, the leader of the CSU in the Bundestag, to put pressure on the chancellor. It is more than likely that Mrs Merkel will achieve enough in her European negotiations over the coming days for some compromise (perhaps including a gradual increase in patrols limits and checks) that can be reached by the CSU. But it is far from certain.
But if not? Mrs Merkel has made it clear that unilateral action by Mr Seehofer would be an act of war, stressing yesterday that the absence of a European solution should not automatically lead to new controls and to say that these matters were her responsibility as chancellor. All this would make it difficult for her to reconcile relations with any semblance of authority if there was a unilateral move by her interior minister in early July.
If that happens, Mrs Merkel may have no practical choice but to sack him, which could force the CSU out of her coalition, leaving the remaining parts (her CDU and the Social Democrats) just short of a majority. The pro-business Greens or Free Democrats may be persuaded to make up the numbers, perhaps supporting the government in crucial votes not to formally enter. there But Mrs Merkel’s authority would be greatly reduced, perhaps eventually. She may stand down in favor of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s general secretary and her preferred heir. A more chaotic departure could favor the chances of more people critical to Merkel in the CDU, such as Jens Spahn, the health minister and a friend of Mr. Dobrindt.
But for now, as of last week, there is a health warning: don’t write off Mrs. Merkel just yet. The chancellor remains Germany’s most popular politician. She has the support of most of her party; including several MPs who are not speaking at the moment, to avoid further heated relations with the CSU, but who would stand behind her if her leadership was in serious danger. None of her replacements look quite ready to step into her shoes yet (if this drama were to play out in a year or two the picture could to be different). The tactics of the CSU seem to be backfiring: opinion polls show support for both the CDU/CSU nationally and the CSU in Bavaria falling. Many in the CDU, and some quiet skeptical moderates in the CSU, are losing patience with Mr. Seehofer’s theatrics. This is one of the main rules in German politics that voters value stability above most things. As long as Mrs. Merkel looks like a better guarantor of that stability than her rivals, she remains a force to be reckoned with.