Eleventh hour

Merkel, Seehofer reach last-minute compromise on migration to avert crisis

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There was no stopping him. Source: Reuters

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rebellious interior minister, Horst Seehofer, reached a compromise on migration at almost literally the eleventh hour Monday, averting a government crisis for the time being. Mr. Seehofer, who threatened to resign the previous day, will stay in office.

The two agreed to set up three transit centers for asylum seekers on the border with Austria, confining them there as their cases are quickly processed. They will be returned to whichever EU country they first registered, provided Germany has a bilateral agreement with that country to return asylum seekers. If that country does not have an arrangement with Germany, Austria has agreed to take them back.

The last-minute compromise capped an unprecedented challenge to Ms. Merkel’s authority after she vetoed the interior minister’s plan to turn back refugees at the border, and he countered that he would go ahead with it anyway. He backed off from immediate action, but gave her an ultimatum to find the European solution she considered necessary.

Government more fragile than ever

Without Monday night’s compromise, Mr. Seehofer would have been fired or would have resigned, which could have brought down the government if his party then withdrew from the coalition.

Although Ms. Merkel lives to govern another day, her coalition government is now more fragile than ever and her own position considerably weaker. The challenge from the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has functioned as the Bavarian wing of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since the founding of the Federal Republic, was unprecedented in its ferocity.

Mr. Seehofer, who remains as leader of the CSU, can argue that even though he compromised in the end he pushed the chancellor to act on an issue that has eroded his party’s support in Bavaria. His ultimatum forced Ms. Merkel to seek a EU mini-summit the previous weekend and diverted the scheduled EU summit this past weekend to an all-night crisis meeting on the migration issue.

Support from Italy

The Bavarian politician received support from the new populist government in Italy, which has been forceful in its insistence that something be done to ease its situation at the forefront of immigration. Under its new right-wing government, Austria also supported Mr. Seehofer.

Ms. Merkel had also been unyielding in her insistence to not go it alone, but to have at least some bilateral or multilateral agreements in place with EU partners. The EU summit committed in principle to a policy of closed transit centers. However, the details and timeline were left open.

Still Ms. Merkel needs the CSU deputies in parliament to maintain her majority in the three-way coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). The rift between the two Union parties has grown so wide that it’s unclear how well they will be able to function together moving forward. Further, the degree of personal animosity involved raises doubts about the future of the relationship between the two parties.

Meanwhile, the SPD said they would be meeting to discuss whether the compromise between the two conservative parties was acceptable to them. Since their support in opinion polls has plunged, they are not likely to present any challenge that would bring down the government.

Tacking to the center

Over her 13-year tenure, Ms. Merkel has consistently tacked to the political center, often to the discomfort of her more conservative Bavarian allies. But her unilateral 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to a million refugees from Africa and the Middle East spurred the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, presenting the CSU with a political opponent to its right for the first time ever.

It is the impending Bavarian state election in October that forced Mr. Seehofer’s hand in seeking a confrontation on the migration issue. Polls indicate many are unhappy with immigration but they also want stability in government.

The number of immigrants coming into the EU and into Germany has declined sharply as the EU has taken steps with transit countries to stem the tide of refugees. The latest summit also called for refugee centers in non-EU countries, especially in Libya, to forestall the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean.

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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