causa maassen

Merkel-Seehofer standoff shows a balance of weakness, not power

Maaßen wird Staatssekretär im Innenministerium
In Maassen (left), Seehofer has another recruit for his opposition cabinet. Source: DPA

Horst Seehofer has accomplished a number of feats in his long political career, but he could hardly be thought capable of defying the law of gravity. Until now. Mr. Seehofer could not prevent the dismissal of his confidant Hans-Georg Maassen, but he could prevent Mr. Maassen’s fall. The supposed victim skated away from his previous function as president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to the top levels of the interior ministry. He was spared a hard landing into temporary retirement.

Mr. Seehofer emphasized that Mr. Maassen has rendered considerable service to the country, especially in the fight against terrorism. But you don’t have to question that to maintain that Mr. Maassen has undermined confidence in himself and his authority over the past two weeks. If the head of the domestic intelligence service is unsettling the public with crass speculation, nobody should be surprised if the next terror alert isn’t taken seriously. Mr. Maassen’s behavior after the neo-Nazi riots in Chemnitz was the reason for his dismissal. The reward: promotion to state secretary and 20 percent more salary.

As right as the criticism of Mr. Maassen is, it would be wrong to reduce the so-called Causa Maassen to the person Maassen. Germany’s ex-domestic spy chief may like to put himself into the middle of things with his interviews, but in the end he is a marginal figure. The chancellor has recently pointed out that the coalition “will not break up over the head of a subsidiary agency.” That’s true. At the same time, however, Angela Merkel has covered up what her cabinet could very well break up over: its internal contradictions and unresolved power issues. The grand coalition is made up of a Social Democratic party that is willing to govern only under certain conditions and a center-right alliance that has limited powers to govern. The result: a scary equilibrium with two existential crises in six months.

Head of federal police Dieter Romann in Potsdam
Dieter Romann, head of Germany's federal police, is an ally in the ministry. Source: Reuters

It is no coincidence that the controversies are taking place in the interior ministry. Under Mr. Seehofer’s leadership, something like an opposition cabinet is being formed there. In his future role as state secretary for security, Mr. Maassen will meet his old friend Dieter Romann, the head of the federal police, with whom he shares a vehement rejection of the chancellor’s refugee policy. Given this lineup, one thing is certain: There won’t be less conflict in Ms. Merkel’s coalition in crisis.

The chancellor’s main problem, however, is Mr. Seehofer, who never intended to go along with her authority to determine refugee policy. When he talks about a reversal in asylum policy, he isn’t only referring to the usual revisions showing the imprint of a new minister over time. He means the humiliation of his rival. Government policy is characterized by a stalemate between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer. That is their plight. There is a balance of power which is actually a balance of weakness. Mr. Seehofer is badly hit after his party’s losses in last year’s national elections. He lacks the strength to overthrow the chancellor. But Ms. Merkel, too, is no longer strong enough to get rid of her opponent.

Merkel camp counting on CSU losses in Bavaria

The result is a continuation of the ongoing conflict over refugee policy. Ms. Merkel is playing for time. Her camp is counting on the Seehofer problem resolving itself after the state elections in Bavaria. A historical defeat for the CSU is emerging there, and many will blame party leader Mr. Seehofer for it. But what follows from this is completely open. Even if the CSU were to send a new minister to Berlin, the fundamental ideological dispute remains as to whether the two sister parties – Ms. Merkel’s CDU and Mr. Seehofer’s CSU – should remain anchored in the political center or in the conservative spectrum. That is precisely what refugee policy is ultimately about.

Between the CDU/CSU fronts stands the SPD, which actually wanted to position Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz as an alternative to Merkel and suddenly appears as the chancellor’s protective guard. The Social Democrats are absorbing most of the outrage at the leadership shuffle in Mr. Seehofer’s giant ministry. Instead of celebrating the successes of their government work – the law for better daycare centers that has just been passed, or the reduction in contributions to unemployment insurance, for example – the SPD can be worn down as a buffer party. No miracle that the coalition opponents feel confirmed. The discontent of the base can quickly turn into revolt.

It’s been nearly forgotten in the meantime that the coalition agreement carries the heading “A new departure for Europe.” The hope was that a Franco-German tandem would lead Europe through uncertain times. Six months later, hardly anyone in Berlin has noticed that the reform president, Emmanuel Macron, is in serious trouble. While the German government is self-absorbed, a historic opportunity is passing. Europe’s opponents, both internal and external, are gleefully anticipating the worst.

To contact the author: koch@handelsblatt.com

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