Desperately seeking solutions

EU mini-summit gets nowhere, but Merkel's not going anywhere

German Chancellor Merkel is welcomed by European Commission President Juncker at the start of an emergency European Union leaders summit on immigration at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels
And then we get the Italians some wine and then... Source: Reuters

Another weekend, another European Union summit for Angela Merkel. The EU’s longest-serving head of government came to Brussels on Sunday for a special mini-summit on migration, ahead of the actual summit, which takes place later this week.

As always, Germany’s chancellor was calm, businesslike, and down-to-earth before the meeting. This was a working session with her colleagues, she told the media before the get-together. “Nothing more, nothing less,” she said.

But in truth, Ms. Merkel is fighting to find compromises on immigration to unify twenty-eight squabbling EU countries, as well as pacify a rebellious coalition partner back home, the newly appointed interior minister, Horst Seehofer. If the chancellor can’t come up with a deal by July 1, Mr. Seehofer, a senior member of Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, appears ready to openly defy her.

“If a minister goes against the Chancellor, she has no choice. She must uphold the dignity of her office.”

Wolfgang Schäuble, President of the Bundestag

Ms. Merkel said the 16 European leaders who attended were searching for “a reasonable compromise” on the continent’s migration problems. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker called the meeting at Berlin’s request. On Sunday, the chancellor admitted an overarching deal was unlikely, but said the mini-summit could help achieve useful bilateral and trilateral deals between affected countries.

Ms. Merkel has some reliable allies. In Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron and Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez have indicated their willingness to make inter-country deals on migration if no overall European-level solution can be found.

Others are less dependable. Italy’s new right-wing government has made it clear that it no longer wants to bear the brunt of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. At Sunday’s meeting, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte presented a new 10-point plan for a European solution to the question.

It includes scrapping the so-called Dublin rules, which say the country where an asylum seekers first registers is the country that bears responsibility for them as well as setting up refugee reception centers outside of Europe or at popular arrival points in Europe, where asylum seekers could apply to enter the country. Those whose applications were accepted could enter the country, others would be sent home. The Italian prime minister also wants to see more burden sharing, with other EU countries accepting a fair share of migrants.

Horst Seehofer, Angela Merkel
Merkel's best frenemy, Horst Seehofer. Source: DPA

An EU quota system for migrants has already been rejected by several eastern European countries. And Mr. Conte’s plan said nothing about Germany sending Italian-registered asylum seekers back to Italy, something Mr. Seehofer is insisting on.

Still, EU officials believe there is greater support for the “reception centers” plan, where migrants would be held while their asylum claims are processed.

Ideas differ on how exactly this would work. The EU Commission has suggested centers run by UN agencies, located both inside and outside the EU. A bloc of right-wing governments led by Austria and Hungary wants to transfer the EU’s entire asylum infrastructure to North Africa and the Balkans. But that is going too far for Mr. Macron, who thinks that is against European values and human rights duties.

With so many unresolved questions, Ms. Merkel is running out of time before the main EU summit on Thursday and Friday. “There are still a lot of loose ends to be tied up,” one EU diplomat admitted to Handelsblatt.

Mr. Seehofer and his party seem to have written off any possibility of a deal. “Honestly, I have no hope in that solution in the short term,” Stephan Mayer, a deputy interior minister from the CSU, told Handelsblatt. He also reasserted his ministry’s plans to begin sending asylum seekers to their countries of registration on July 1.

This will almost inevitably lead to a clash with the chancellor. If Mr. Seehofer goes ahead without Ms. Merkel’s permission, then she would have no choice but to relieve him of the job, the country’s Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble told newspapers at the weekend. In turn, that might lead to Mr. Seehofer’s party, the CSU, pulling out of the government. “If a minister goes against the Chancellor, she has no choice. She must uphold the dignity of her office,” he said.

Which would leave Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats without a parliamentary majority. The head of the Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles, is also worried. “I want to know from the CDU, and particularly from the CSU: Are they still able to carry out the work of government constructively? Do they even want that?,” she told local newspaper, Bild Am Sonntag.

Till Hoppe is a Handelsblatt editor and a foreign policy correspondent based in Berlin. Moritz Koch is a political editor in Berlin. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: koch@handelsblatt.com, riedel@handelsblatt.comt.hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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