A fight between Angela Merkel and and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is threatening to collapse the German government less than three months after it was formed. Not for the first time, the two can’t agree on how to treat asylum seekers at the border.
What is the strife all about?
Merkel and Seehofer have been squabbling ever since the autumn of 2015, when the Chancellor decided to open Germany’s borders to refugees who were stranded in Hungary.
Pressure had been building throughout the summer on the government to do more to help people fleeing war in Syria. When 71 decomposing bodies were found in the back of a smugglers van in Austria, the German public was left stunned at the desperate plight of people seeking refuge in Europe.
Inside her own CDU party, Merkel was being told that her Christian voting base was becoming disenchanted by the Chancellor’s seeming indifference to the fates of the migrants. Meanwhile, on the European level, the migrants crisis was threatening to sow discord between countries like Greece and Italy on the front line and northern European states that were insulated from the arrivals.
Seehofer, head of Bavaria’s CSU party, saw things differently though. At the time he was state leader in Bavaria, the southern state bordering Austria. His voter base there was staunchly conservative and well known for its suspicion of outsiders, even those from other parts of Germany. He also knew though that his state would have to bear the biggest initial burden, as the vast majority of refugees were coming into Bavaria from Austria.
Seehofer was adamant that Germany should not take in asylum seekers who had initially arrived in another European country. Legally, he was in the right. EU rules – known as the Dublin rules – state that a refugee has to seek asylum in the country in which they were first registered.
Events outside the German government’s control ultimately forced them to act. In September 2015, thousands of refugees were sleeping rough at Budapest’s central station and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban was threatening to put them on buses and leave them at the Austrian border. The government in Vienna appealed to Germany for help.
Merkel had to make a decision quickly. She reportedly called all the top level members of her government to consult. Seehofer, as leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), was supposed to be included in these top level talks. But he never answered his phone. The Bavarian leader was in a sulk because Merkel had ignored an invitation to a CSU gathering on that same day and was refusing to speak to her. In the end Merkel decided to come to Austria’s aid and take in half of the refugees. Seehofer would go on to claim that she had done so over his head.
That’s all water under the bridge now though, isn’t it?
Very much not. Merkel’s decision to open the border was initially a short-term answer to the plight of a few thousand people sleeping rough in Budapest. But events took on a momentum of their own.
News quickly spread that Germany was taking in refugees, encouraging people to set off on a dangerous journey from Turkey to Germany. Soon, several thousand people were arriving every day. The government briefly considered turning people back at the border, but balked at the possibility that things could get violent.
While the world celebrated Merkel’s decision, Seehofer demanded that it be reversed. He threatened to take his own government to court and gave Merkel a humiliating dressing down on live television at the CSU party conference.
In the initial weeks of the refugee arrivals, Merkel enjoyed wide public support. Overjoyed Germans welcomed refugees at train stations, while the feverish press talked about the country atoning for the sins of its past.
From the beginning though, the country was less united than it seemed. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) muttered darkly about immigrants from “stone aged” Muslim societies not being capable of integrating into German society. As the arrivals continued unabated their polling figures slowly crept up.
Such views were swept under the carpet as unbefitting of the new “colourful” Germany. But then New Year happened. In Cologne, hundreds of women reported being sexually assaulted or pick-pocketed by men “of North African appearance” at a street party. Similar reports emerged from various other cities.
Suddenly the mainstream debate took on a darker new dimension. Would the arrival of largely single young men from societies where woman are second-class citizens be a problem after all?
Apparently a large section of the electorate was no longer so enthused about the Wilkommenskultur. Bellwether elections after the Cologne attacks indicated that a good section of the German public had been rattled.
In Hesse the AfD scored stunning successes at the local level, going from being a fringe party to winning 13.2 percent of the vote. Weeks later they proved that this was no fluke, embarrassing Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) at state elections in Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg.
Throughout 2016, the evidence that the refugee influx had indeed made Germany less safe stacked up. Terror attacks in July were followed by an attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December. The terrorist in Berlin was a Tunisian man with a criminal record who should have been deported months previously. Meanwhile, the rape and murder of a student in Freiburg was one of several violent crimes against women that were carried out by refugees.
By the time national elections came round in September 2017 the mood in the country had changed dramatically. For the first time in decades, a party to the right of the CDU made it into the national parliament when close to 13 percent of voters backed the AfD.
And, despite the fact Seehofer’s CSU had vocally opposed the open border policy, the Bavarian electorate decided to punish them, too. The CSU have run Bavaria like a one-party state since the 1940s and are used to winning close to 50 percent of the vote. This time though they dropped to 38 percent, as 12.4 percent of Bavarians put their cross next to the AfD.
Political careers in Munich have ended with more minor consequences. Seehofer’s time as state leader was up. He was pushed out in favour of the younger and even more conservative Markus Söder.
But, unusually, that didn’t spell the end of his career. At 1.93 metres, Seehofer isn’t used to being pushed around – and he still had a big support base within the party. So, as a prerequisite for joining the new federal government, the CSU insisted he take over the Interior Ministry.
And before he even moved into government he managed to secure a minor coup. Merkel backed down after over two years and accepted his long-held insistence on a cap for refugee arrivals at 200,000 a year.
Why has the issue exploded again now?
Close to three years after the refugee influx, there is still no other issue that really matters in Germany.
Over recent weeks, the news agenda has been dominated by a scandal at the refugee authority (BAMF). Prosecutors believe that the BMF office in Bremen took bribes in exchange for handing asylum to undeserving recipients over a two-year period. These revelations opened a can of worms over BAMF practices nationwide.
Questions started to be asked about how reliable BAMF’s decision making had been as hundreds of thousands of asylum applications were assessed by understaffed offices. The ex-head of the authority openly blamed Merkel for a breakdown in the system, saying she ignored his warnings that his staff were overstretched.
Meanwhile another brutal crime by an asylum seeker has brought the issue of crimes against women back to the forefront of the news agenda. The suspected rape and murder of a teenage girl in Wiesbaden by an Iraqi asylum seeker led to several marches and demonstrations.
Seehofer knows that his own voter base are angry. And he knows that there is a state election coming up in Bavaria later this year. With the state election in mind, he was set to announce a “master plan” on asylum earlier this week. But he cancelled it at the last moment, citing unresolved issues inside the cabinet.
It soon emerged that the Bavarian had been unable to gain the green light from Merkel on a central proposal: allowing German border police to turn back asylum seekers who had been registered in other European countries.
Just as had been the case in 2015, Merkel was seeking a solution which served a united Europe, while Seehofer wanted one that put German interests first.
In late June Merkel is set to meet her fellow European leaders to try and reach agreement on a common asylum strategy. Before then she is engaging in intensive bilateral dialogue in the hope that she can breech the major differences. She appealed to Seehofer to give her two weeks, fearing that his strategy would sink EU unity.
During late night talks, the pair tried and failed to find a consensus decision. Merkel reportedly rejected two CSU offers of compromise, both of which would have involved refugees being turned back at the border.
Meanwhile Seehofer announced that he had entered an ”axis of the willing” with hardline governments in Austria and Italy on migration – a clear affront to his boss’ authority.
Things came to a head on Thursday during a debate in the Bundestag (German parliament). When no agreement could be found, the sitting was interrupted, and for the first time ever, the CDU and CSU consulted separately.
In an afternoon of high drama, sources within the CSU faction told journalists that they were considering splitting from the CDU. On the other side, the CDU, threw their weight behind the Chancellor. Politicians on both sides talked about a “historic moment” in the common history of the parties.
By the end of the afternoon, Seehofer announced the he had set his boss an ultimatum. If Merkel did not cede to his demands by Monday he would use his ministerial privilege to push them through. If he were to do this, he would leave Merkel with no choice but to fire him. That would essentially mean the end of the coalition government only three months after it was formed. New elections would most likely have to be called – and Merkel’s career would surely be over.
Where will this end?
It really depends on who you listen to.
Politicians within the CDU attempted to calm tensions on Friday, Insiders said that a collapse of the coalition remained unlikely. Meanwhile veteran party figure Wolfgang Schäuble was sent to mediate with the CSU. At the same time though, the party’s general secretary sent a letter to party members appealing to their loyalty and emphasizing that Merkel’s strategy was about doing the right thing for Europe.
Opinion polls certainly suggest that Seehofer has the voters on his side. A survey from Friday found that 62 percent of respondents were in favour of turning back undocumented asylum seekers at the border. And 86 percent want faster deportations of rejected asylum seekers, a process now often held up by bureaucratic hurdles, according to the Infratest dimap poll.
But if the Bavarian sees his threat through, he is taking a big step into the unknown.
Some suspect that the year’s long feud is causing Seehofer to act out of anger rather than listen to sense.
“Built up anger is playing its part – but fear too. The CSU has lost its nerve due to the AfD and that is damaging its image,” Die Welt’s Torsten Krauel writes.
Krauel predicts that if the two politicians can’t pull themselves back from the brink it will spell banishment to the political wilderness for both parties.
“Whoever loses the Chancellorship due to an argument won’t be back there any time soon,” he predicted.
Others are more sympathetic to Seehofer. The Stuttgarter Zeitung writes that “the refugee problem won’t be solved on the Bavarian border.” But it also asks why we should believe that Merkel can find a minimum of European consensus of refugees in two weeks when she has failed to do so in the last two years.