Angela Merkel’s European talks put her on the front foot in Berlin
ANGELA MERKEL returns from last night’s European Council summit with a European deal on new immigration controls and a tripartite arrangement between Germany, Greece and Spain to curb high immigration -school to her country (see here for a full interview with my colleague in Brussels). In Berlin one question dominates now: is the package “wirkungsgleich“?
The term roughly translates as “equal in effect”. Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister, used it in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last weekend to describe the bar European negotiations must clarify the Chancellor not to start “secondary immigrants” who are registered in other countries in the EU at the borders of Germany to reverse. Mrs Merkel is strongly opposed to that measure for fear it could lead to a domino effect of new, unilateral border policies across the continent.
Mr Seehofer’s Christian Social Union (CSU), a conservative Bavarian party which sits alongside Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in the Bundestag, had been using the threat to distance itself from the chancellor before home state elections in October, in which the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party is expected to do well. Amid talk of a formal split from the decades-old CDU-CSU alliance, the Bavarians on June 18 gave Mrs Merkel two weeks to find her preferred “European solution” to the high migration crisis -school – or risk breaking if she fails.
Now the CSU has the answer, but its answer has been very hesitant. Manfred Weber, the CSU leader of the center-right bloc in the European Parliament, has noticed: “the EU summit has achieved a big step towards a better immigration policy”. But he is on the more Merkel-friendly wing of his party. Among the Merkel-sceptics at the top of the CSU, Mr. Seehofer has refused to comment at this time and Markus Söder, Bavaria’s minister president who has insisted on the job of interior minister, just called for a gentle reflection on the results of the summit.
That adds to the sense that the move is again with Mrs. Merkel. The chancellor was visibly relieved when she appeared before cameras in Brussels early this morning; a sentiment expressed by loyalists in her CDU, who spent the day busy talking about her achievements. Even some Merkel-sceptics like Mike Mohring, leader of the CDU in the eastern state of Thuringia, have welcomed the package. At a press conference this afternoon Mrs Merkel described it as “more than wirkungsgleich“.
This very positive feeling reflects not only the Chancellor’s small negotiating achievements, but also a new poll for the broadcaster ZDF showing that the majority of Germans want Mrs. Merkel remains Chancellor and, by a large margin, agrees with her that immigration pressures should be handled at European level. level. Meanwhile the CSU’s attempts to win over Bavarians by bringing it forward have clearly failed: opinion polls show fewer, not more, voters in the party’s home state – now planning to support him in the fall.
To be sure, Mrs. Merkel is not safe yet. The bellicose rhetoric of the CSU over the past weeks – by turning back high school immigrants as the only reliable answer to the problem – could make a backlash awkward. Even today, Andrea Lindholz, chairman of the CSU’s internal affairs committee of the Bundestag, said that the measure should remain on the table. At the same time the Chancellor’s terms are hardly strict: the statement of the European Council is vague; its new arrangement with Madrid and Athens is dependent on secondary immigrants being found on the German-Austrian border, where there are only occasional controls on specific routes at the moment; there is still no bilateral agreement with Italy, Germany’s largest source of secondary immigration.
But it’s not anything Mrs Merkel has achieved, and it may be enough to defy low expectations. Tonight she will speak to the leaders of the CSU and CDU. On Sunday afternoon, just before an emergency meeting of the CSU leadership, she will record a television interview to sell her negotiating achievements to the public. The chancellor will reportedly task Mr Seehofer with finalizing the entire network of bilateral and trilateral agreements which she says could control and reduce secondary immigration to Germany .
In other words, the chancellor wants to press home her advantage while she can: bind Mr. Seehofer; daring the CSU to look unreasonable in the eyes of voters; but avoiding victory to give the Bavarians the greatest rhetorical room to retreat with dignity. The next few days will tell if they use it.