It took Germany more than half a year to form a government after its last elections in September 2017. Now it almost seems as if the newly-wed coalition may come apart at the seams again.
The fight is not even taking place between the two key coalition partners – the Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel’s Conservatives (CDU/CSU). Instead, the conflict line runs deeply through Merkel’s very own camp.
It is no news that Merkel and her Bavarian allies – the arch-conservative CSU – don’t see eye to eye on migration and refugee policy. This has been the case since the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 at the latest. Where Merkel advocates a liberal, multilateral approach built around European burden-sharing, the CSU tends to prefer decisive action at the national level.
But now the CSU has upped the ante. Its leader Horst Seehofer – who is also the German Interior Minister – proposed to send police forces to the German borders to reject all asylum seekers who have already been registered elsewhere. “This is a historic fork in the road,” his allies warned, “We have to think of our own population, not always just about Europe.”
Merkel dislikes Seehofer’s plan for many reasons – not least because she fears that it will lead to another chain reaction of border closures across Europe. To resolve the issue, she asked her parliamentarians for another couple of weeks to broker a deal at the European level. The CSU was not impressed.
Considering how complex and protracted the current migration debate within the EU is, a couple of weeks extra time seems unlikely to suffice for a new grand bargain to be struck. Hopes for the upcoming EU summit at the end of this month to deliver any meaningful reforms are low. Still, one should never underestimate Merkel’s ability to come up with some last-minute compromise deal.
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But why is this conflict happening now? After all, the number of asylum claims lodged in Germany is relatively low compared to recent years. While there were more than 400,000 claims lodged in 2015 and more than 700,000 in 2016, the first six months of 2018 have only seen around 56,000 such claims being made.
Part of the reason for this timing are Bavaria’s upcoming state elections in October. Bavaria is the CSU’s home turf – in fact, it is the only state where the CSU fields candidates – and the party is deeply afraid of losing ground to anti-immigration Alternative fuer Deutschland.
In last year’s the federal elections, the AfD managed to grow its vote share in Bavaria by around 8%, while the CSU lost more than 10%. To prevent this from happening again, the CSU now seeks to strengthen its profile as immigration hardliners vis-à-vis Merkel.
But there is more to it. This whole dispute is part of an ongoing fight about the future direction of German conservative politics
There is a clear desire within large parts of the Bavarian CSU to take a decisive turn to the right – they already cherish their relationships with right-wing darlings Viktor Orban, Sebastian Kurz or Matteo Salvini, and are step by step adopting their rhetoric.
While some in the CDU agree with this – and indeed, there is a large debate ongoing within the CDU about where the party should turn once Merkel is gone – many do not. While not exactly content with Merkel’s style of leadership, they see a continuation of her largely centrist approach as the right way ahead.
So what happens next? CSU-leader Horst Seehofer is in charge of the Interior Ministry, and thus could – at least theoretically – go ahead with his border plan even without Merkel’s approval. This, however, is unlikely to happen.
If the CSU pulled through this would leave Merkel two options. First, she could accept it, thereby signalling her absolute powerlessness; or second, she could force Seehofer out, which would most likely kill the coalition. Without her Bavarian allies, Merkel’s CDU and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, would fall two seats short of a majority.
It is unlikely that the CSU will escalate the situation to such a degree. While they are keen on strengthening their own profile on migration in a public conflict with Merkel, they know that they have little to gain from government breaking down. The question now is how to find a compromise that allows both sides to keep some face.
Merkel is likely to survive this, once more. Although further weakened.
But this episode is further proof of how German politics have become increasingly unstable in recent years. And how the challenge posed by the AfD continues to divide German centre-right politics.
Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at Open Europe.