There was a certain irony to the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama chose this week to personally praise his German counterpart for her handling of the refugee crisis.
“I want to personally thank Chancellor Merkel and [Canadian] Prime Minister Trudeau, and the people of both those countries – because the politics sometimes can be hard, but it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday.
His comments, at a special United Nations summit on refugees in New York, came just one day after Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over errors made in her government’s handling of the crisis. Her mea culpa was aimed not at Mr. Obama but at domestic voters who have grown wary of her open-door refugee policy and punished her Christian Democratic Union party in two recent regional elections.
The electoral defeats have many within Ms. Merkel’s own party worried. For the first time, there have been questions raised over whether the chancellor should run for a fourth term in federal elections next year.
Ms. Merkel even canceled her own trip to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly this week in order to address growing concerns among party members at a meeting on Monday.
Bavaria’s arch-conservative Christian Social Union party, an important ally of Ms. Merkel’s CDU, has been among the fiercest critics of her refugee policy. But it struck a conciliatory tone after her statement of contrition Monday night.
The two sister parties have had a tumultuous relationship over the last 12 months, but it now seems they would rather bury the hatchet than risk losing next year’s federal elections.
Leading members of the CSU responded to her mea culpa statement by signalling they were ready to drop their demand for Germany to impose an upper limit on the number of refugees it takes in — a key source of friction between the two parties over the past year.
Bavaria has been on the front line of the refugee crisis because it was the entry point for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers who arrived along the “Balkan route” from Greece — and because it was the scene of two terrorist attacks committed by people posing as refugees in July.
“If the chancellor can bring herself to define the limit of what our country can cope with, we’re a clear step closer to an agreement,” Ilse Aigner, Bavaria’s economics minister and a former federal minister for agriculture in Ms. Merkel’s cabinet, told Handelsblatt.
“If the chancellor can bring herself to define the limit of what our country can cope with, we’re a clear step closer to an agreement.”
Ms. Aigner said the CSU wouldn’t allow a deal to founder on the word “upper” but added that Ms. Merkel must make clear “that we’re not over-stretching our country and that Germany’s readiness to help has a limit at the point where our financial and social capabilities run out.”
“Even the chancellor can no longer ignore the fact that the majority of the population is demanding more than the rhetoric there’s been so far,” she added.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, the powerful leader of the CSU group of lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, said the CSU wanted to cap the intake at 200,000 refugees per year but echoed Ms. Aigner in saying the term “upper limit” was “not decisive.”
She said practical measures were needed to reduce refugee numbers, including establishing transit zones for asylum-seekers or reaching deals with African countries to take back migrants.
“In the current debate, the message Angela Merkel sent out is an important and helpful signal,” said Angelika Niebler, a CSU lawmaker in the European Parliament. “I am sure that on this basis the policy debate the CDU and CSU will hold in the coming weeks will produce good results.”
Even CSU party chairman Horst Seehofer, the governor of Bavaria, indicated he was ready to bury the hatchet. He called on conservatives to focus on policies in the next 12 months ahead of the election.
“It’s not just the immigration issue; it’s also about taxes, finances, pensions, security right up to Europe and the economy,” he said.
The remarks show the CSU has been mollified by Ms. Merkel’s surprising expression of contrition on Monday — even though she stopped short of offering concrete policy concessions.
The chancellor told journalists after a meeting with senior members of her party that she wished she could turn back the clock to make Germany better prepared for the influx of 1 million refugees last year, and she took a share of the blame. She even distanced herself from her “we will manage it” mantra on integrating refugees, which has infuriated conservative voters, especially her critics in the CSU.
“We all have to do better – including me,” Ms. Merkel said. “God knows we didn’t do everything right.”
The CSU accounts for around 20 percent of the conservative bloc of votes in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, and she needs its backing to stand again for the chancellorship.
Ms. Merkel has been weakened by election routs for her CDU in regional elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Berlin this month and by a slide in her personal approval ratings, which have cast doubt on whether she will run for a fourth term in the general election in fall 2017.
Analysts said Ms. Merkel’s words were carefully chosen to restore unity in her ranks. “Merkel’s admission is basically an offer to the CSU but also to the suppressed, heavy criticism within the CDU,” said Professor Heinrich Oberreuter, a political analyst at the University of Passau in Bavaria.
He said Mr. Seehofer was likely to be appeased by it because it signalled a change in direction — but that voters may be harder to convince. “Lost voters can’t be won back by words, only by results,” Mr. Oberreuter said.
Members of the chancellor’s own party also welcomed her new stance. The CDU governor of the southwestern state of Saarland, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said Ms. Merkel had “self-critically conceded weaknesses and misjudgments in the refugee policy.”
And yet, Ms. Merkel may have a hard time turning her new words into action. CDU lawmaker Wolfgang Steiger noted that the center-left Social Democrats, junior partners in Ms. Merkel’s coalition, and the opposition Greens had used their votes in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, to block some measures aimed at reducing refugee numbers, such as increasing the number of countries of origin deemed safe.
Conservative lawmakers said it was time for the CDU and CSU to pull together, for example, by jointly attacking the refusal of some of Germany’s regional states to step up the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers.
Conservative leaders in both the CDU and CSU now want Ms. Merkel to declare by December whether she plans to run in 2017. That month the CDU will hold its annual party congress.
“In the current debate, the message Angela Merkel sent out is an important and helpful signal.”
Time is running out to win back voters who have drifted to the populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, the big winner in regional elections this year, which is now represented in 10 German state governments.
Despite signs of a rapprochement between the CDU and CSU, it’s still not assured that Ms. Merkel will fight the next election. Mr. Oberreuter said it was too soon for her to declare her candidacy now.
“Merkel is more controversial in the party and in the public than many care to admit,” he said. “That’s why a clear line must be found on the direction and the program before these decisive questions are overlaid with the candidacy question.”
Daniel Delhaes of Handelsblatt covers politics from Berlin. Christopher Cermak of Handelsblatt Global Edition contributed to this story. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org