asylum impasse

Migrant crisis sets Merkel a Herculean diplomatic task

Statements after exploratory talks about forming a new coalition government at the SPD headquarters in Berlin
Thorn in her side. Source: Reuters

Angela Merkel’s rebellious interior minister appears to have given her more time to work out a European solution to the refugee crisis, and possibly to save her disunited government.

Writing in a German Sunday newspaper, Horst Seehofer said that tough decisions on migration must be taken at the European Union summit at the end of this month, but stressed that his CSU party had no desire to see the governing coalition fall apart.

Such are the tensions within Ms. Merkel’s government that this was regarded as a conciliatory statement, giving the green light to the German chancellor to plunge into bilateral negotiations with other EU leaders ahead of the summit.

That process begins on Monday, with the visit to Germany of Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte. On Tuesday, he is followed to Berlin by French premier Emmanuel Macron.

Both meetings will be dominated by the migrant crisis, and the deep splits in European politics it has highlighted. With both the EU and her own government dangerously divided on the issue, Ms. Merkel wants to gradually move toward general agreement, while simultaneously devising bilateral deals between the countries worst affected by the crisis.

Beyond fudge?

The one thing everyone can agree on is that this is a daunting diplomatic challenge, even for Ms. Merkel, the virtuoso of fudge and compromise.

On Sunday, Berlin played down suggestions of holding crisis talks on migration with a small group of EU leaders ahead of the official summit. A German government spokesperson said that any such meeting could only be organized by EU institutions, not by member states.

Last week, Mr. Seehofer announced his intention to begin turning away some asylum seekers at Germany’s borders, a move opposed by Ms. Merkel, but technically in his power to decide as interior minister. In doing so, he inflamed tensions between migration moderates and hardliners on migration within the coalition government.

Mr. Seehofer’s plan to send asylum seekers back to other EU member states could easily cause a chain reaction, prompting other countries taking equally tough measures and making compromise at an EU level all but impossible.

Dead in the water

Countries like Italy and Greece, where most migrants first enter the EU, say they can no longer bear the brunt of arrivals. A quota system, agreed two years ago, would have distributed migrants from these states to other EU countries. But that deal is now dead in the water, having been stubbornly refused by a number of Eastern European countries.

All this puts massive pressure on Europe’s politicians to find agreement at the EU summit in Brussels on June 28–29. There are fears that the migration impasse could block progress on equally urgent matters, including a new EU budget and the continuing problems of the euro.

The EU Council president, Donald Tusk, plans a round of shuttle diplomacy around European capitals this week, seeking glimmers of compromise between member states. As well as destabilizing the German government last week, the migration issue also prompted a nasty public squabble between the French and Italian governments, with Mr. Macron accusing Rome of “cynicism and irresponsibility.”

Introducing the hardline

Mr. Seehofer is a senior figure in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). On migration, he has long been a thorn in the chancellor’s side, including through his informal alliances with right-wing leaders in Austria, Hungary and Poland.

Since becoming interior minister in March, his hardline positions have aggravated tensions within the government, including between the CSU and the CDU, traditionally close allies. The CSU leadership was set to meet Monday morning to discuss Mr. Seehofer’s “migration masterplan,” which he remains determined to push through, in spite of Ms. Merkel’s opposition.

The party faces Bavarian regional elections in October. With its polling numbers weak, it wants to combat the threat of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). The CSU has ruled Germany’s second most-populous state since the Second World War, but could lose its absolute majority this time around.

On Sunday Ms. Merkel met with senior CDU figures to discuss what to do about their troublesome CSU allies and had planned more meetings on Monday morning. She is scheduled to give a press conference in the early afternoon.

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Handelsblatt correspondents Daniel Delhaes, Jan Hildebrand, Regina Krieger and Berlin bureau chief Thomas Sigmund contributed reporting to this piece. To reach the authors: d.delhaes@handelsblattgroup.com

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