Angela Merkel faces fresh trouble from her Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, over her stance on the refugee question. This time around, though, the chancellor looks more isolated than ever, as more and more Christian Democrats side with the hardline Bavarians, abandoning their leader.
As the dispute escalates, the stakes are growing and could eventually bring Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship to an end. The issue is already dividing Europe, a split that’s now being exacerbated by the Bavarian CSU leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, as he allies himself with other European leaders who oppose Ms. Merkel’s asylum policy, from Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Italy’s new far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini.
The ongoing feud between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer over immigration flared up again suddenly on Monday when the chancellor rejected the interior minister’s proposal to turn refugees away at the German border if they had already applied for asylum in another European country. This measure was a key tenet of Mr. Seehofer’s “master plan for migration,” which he had planned to unveil on Tuesday. After the chancellor’s veto, Mr. Seehofer canceled the presentation of his 63-point plan.
The chancellor’s colleagues are deserting her
He was unlikely to give up the fight, though. Mr. Seehofer, the chancellor’s fiercest frenemy, has the unanimous backing of his party, which is allied with Ms. Merkel’s CDU in the German parliament, but supports more right-wing policies in its native Bavaria. “We’ll enforce it,” said Alexander Dobrindt, a former minister in Ms. Merkel’s previous cabinet and a senior CSU figure, while Markus Söder, Mr. Seehofer’s successor as Bavarian state premier, urged the chancellor to drop her open-door refugee policy, saying, “Anyone who’s serious about avoiding a repeat of 2015 needs to act now.”
Unlike in past conflicts between Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Merkel, such as his call for refugee cap, this time the chancellor’s own party members are deserting her.
On Tuesday, CDU lawmakers in the Bundestag overwhelmingly supported Mr. Seehofer’s plan during an internal debate within the party’s parliamentary group. Of the 13 lawmakers who wanted to speak, 11 backed the interior minister while two opted for the middle ground. None supported the chancellor’s call for a European solution, instead of what she characterized as a “unilateral German decision.”
In all, “75 percent of the group support Mr. Seehofer’s plan,” said Andreas Mattfeldt, a CDU politician from Lower Saxony. He said in the nine years he has been in the Bundestag, “I have never seen so many politicians voice their disapproval of the chancellor’s position so clearly.”
Another strain on the coalition
“The situation is getting serious,” a senior figure of the parliamentary group said. There are rumors in Berlin that this could be the issue that finally topples Ms. Merkel. The difference is that this time around, not only is support ebbing for Ms. Merkel within the conservative CDU/CSU bloc, the question is also straining her coalition with the Social Democrats. “Voters expect us to implement each and every single point in the coalition agreement,” Lars Castellucci, a spokesman for the SPD, told Handelsblatt.
That might prove difficult, as some of Mr. Seehofer’s demands are not part of the 179-page coalition agreement — including his controversial proposal to turn away migrants at the border. His proposal could also put Germany at odds with the Dublin agreement which regulates asylum policy across the European Union.
But the CSU is unfazed; Mr. Dobrindt, the former transport minister, called the master plan a “coalition agreement plus.” Meanwhile, Mr, Seehofer’s search for allies abroad will further weaken Ms. Merkel.
On Tuesday, Mr. Seehofer invited Mr. Salvini, his hardline Italian counterpart, to Berlin next week to discuss a joint proposal to protect the EU’s external borders. Mr. Salvini is not just any interior minister. A member of the anti-immigration League party, Mr. Salvini was behind Italy’s decision to close its ports to a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants at the weekend. The far-right politician was sworn in last month with a pledge to deport 500,000 migrants from his country. According to Italian officials, Mr. Salvini and Mr. Seehofer are in “full agreement” on security and immigration.
On Wednesday, Mr. Seehofer also snubbed Ms. Merkel by failing to show up at an annual integration summit that the interior minister traditionally attends. He chose instead to meet with another chancellor — from Austria. Sebastian Kurz is another long-standing Merkel critic and thus a natural ally for Mr. Seehofer. Although his proposal to reject migrants at Germany’s borders would cause Austria major problems, both politicians opted to ignore this difference, and emphasize instead their agreement on how to defend the EU’s borders.
The cause of this latest spat is an election, four months away. Mr. Seehofer’s CSU is desperate to cling to power in the wealthy southern state but according to opinion polls, the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is a strong challenger. The state’s conservatives are anxious to win back voters with an ever more hawkish stance on immigration.
Plus, it can’t hurt to bond with the young, photogenic Mr. Kurz from across the border, who governs in a coalition with the far-right.
It’s all par for the course for the CSU, whose playbook is based on picking fights with Ms. Merkel. The interesting question is whether Mr. Seehofer is willing to risk bringing down Ms. Merkel just to help his party win the next state election.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt political correspondents Daniel Delhaes and Moritz Koch also contributed to this article. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.