After a weekend that almost felt like a soap opera, German conservatives have arrived at a fragile truce.
For more than two weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) wrestled with their Bavarian sister-party, the arch-conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), over the Bavarians’ demands for Germany to take unilateral measures to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers entering the country. Merkel, rightly afraid of the chain-reactions this would cause across the continent, was adamant that a solution could only be found in concert with Berlin’s European partners.
On Sunday, as the situation seemed in absolute deadlock, German Interior Minister and CSU-leader Horst Seehofer went so far to offer his resignation. Even his own MPs were shocked.
If this was meant as a threat, it seems to have worked. Partly out of fear over the political fallout such a resignation might have caused – at least soured relations between the parties, at worst an outright break away of the CSU from an alliance with the CDU which has held since the 1940s – a last-minute deal was struck.
On a plain one-pager, both sides agreed to new rules at the border with Austria; to establish “transit centres” to prevent asylum seekers who already have their claims processed in another EU member state entering the country. Where possible, the intention is to agree bilateral deals with other countries to allow Germany to deport asylum seekers quickly. Where these deals don’t exist, Germany wants to push these people back into Austria.
As fudges go, the deal is shallow enough to allow both sides to claim victory without really solving any problems. Seehofer can claim a mechanism for rejecting migrants at the German border; Merkel can stress the cooperation with EU partners in achieving this. But will it work?
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The third coalition partner in Germany’s government – the Social Democrats (SPD) – may be bought in after some fiddling with the wording. Yet Austria, the key partner needed for the plan to work, already voiced its opposition to the German plan, saying it would close its own southern borders in return. This would be another step towards the crippling of Europe’s borderless Schengen zone.
And the bilateral return deals with other EU member states? Some are within sight, but key partners such as Italy are unlikely to cooperate.
Many billed the events of the past days as another “Merkel crisis” – but is it really that? It is true that Merkel has come under increasing pressure, and that many in her own party did initially sympathise with the more restrictive demands put forward by Seehofer. But by overplaying their hand, Seehofer and his CSU also turned the situation in a crisis for themselves.
Afraid of losing even more votes to the anti-immigration Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in October’s Bavarian state elections, the CSU decided to push hard on the refugee question itself. In the eyes of many Germans however, it pushed far too hard.
Before the crisis came to helm this weekend, a clear majority (67%) of Germans already thought the CSU was acting irresponsibly in its dispute with Merkel, with 69% supporting Merkel’s approach of a European solution (however distant a possibility that may be) over Seehofer’s strategy of national unilateralism. Even in the CSU’s home turf Bavaria, more citizens identified the CSU (39%) as the state’s biggest problem than refugees (30%).
The dispute is likely to cost the CSU the support of many centrist voters, who may opt for the more moderate Green Party or the Free Voters come the elections. Whether the CSU can make up for this by taking votes from the AfD – of whose supporters 88% agreed with Seehofer’s approach – remains to be seen. Current polling raises doubts over this however, as it sees the CSU at a new low while the AfD is rising.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the immediate crisis between CDU and CSU has cooled down for now. But the real divides have not yet been bridged. It will only a matter of time until the next round of fighting will start.
On the one hand, the last days have seen the personal relationship between Chancellor Merkel and her Interior Minister Seehofer deteriorate even further. Seehofer’s leaked comment that “I can no longer work with this woman” was the first jab; his later remarks that “I won’t be dismissed by a chancellor who is only chancellor due to me” the second.
On the other hand, the wider debate over the future direction of both CDU and CSU continues. With some factions keen to preserve the centrist, multilateral course steered by Merkel also beyond her term, and others seeking to emulate the likes of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, much room for conflict remains.
German politics won’t go back to boring anytime soon.