Government crisis

Seehofer delay on refugees gives Merkel brief reprieve

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No doubt where his loyalties lie. Source: Reuters

Did Horst Seehofer blink? Germany’s interior minister, leader of the Bavarian wing of Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance, backed down from his defiant stance on turning away immigrants at the border. He agreed to give the chancellor until after next week’s European summit to agree on a European solution that will slow entry of refugees into Germany.

That rebellion from a top cabinet member and key supporter in Berlin’s coalition government created Ms. Merkel’s worst political crisis since she took power 13 years ago. If Mr. Seehofer maintains his stance, it would set in motion a chain of events that would topple her from power. She would have to fire him, he would pull his party out of government, and Ms. Merkel would no longer have a majority in parliament.

Her decision in 2015 to admit an unlimited number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East has led to significant loss of voter support for the center-right parties in last year’s election. Ms. Merkel had difficulty in forming a government and finally had to settle for a renewal of the grand coalition with Social Democrats, much weakened both in actual parliamentary representation and in political clout.

CSU focused on Bavaria vote

Above all, Mr. Seehofer’s party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost ground in Bavaria to the far-right Alternative for Germany, creating deep resentment in the party that Ms. Merkel’s policies made them vulnerable on the right for the first time in postwar history. The CSU has been firmly allied with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) throughout that time. The Bavarian party is now fighting to keep its majority in state elections in October.

Germany’s political crisis over immigration is reaching a peak even as a similar crisis is mounting in the United States. President Donald Trump didn’t waste any time tweeting about the German situation as a way of bolstering his own controversial border policies, including separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in tent camps.

However, Mr. Trump’s claim that Germans were turning against their leaders because of an increase in crime spurred by immigration was easily debunked by a report last month from Mr. Seehofer’s own ministry showing a nearly 10% drop in crime last year, to the lowest point since 1992.

Threats, promises and ultimatums

Mr. Seehofer’s plan to turn away refugees at the border is part of a larger package of policies to slow immigration. Out of a reported 63 measures, which have not been made public, the border action was the only one vetoed by Ms. Merkel.

Postponement of border control came after a weekend of frantic negotiations, with threats and promises flying around until in a very German manner the parties kicked the can down the road. Mr. Seehofer originally threatened to implement his border plan on Monday, but said he would wait now until the June 28 summit to see if Ms. Merkel can get agreement on a European plan for handling immigrants. In the meantime, he warned in a press conference Monday, he would be putting the prerequisites in place to follow through on his plan from July 1.

Ms. Merkel reminded him that insubordination on a major policy matter violated the “chancellor principle” — the head of government determines the guidelines on government policies. But in fact she has little leverage to back up her threat. The CSU, which has given Mr. Seehofer its unequivocal support, would rather torpedo the federal government than lose its majority in Bavaria.

The nearly six months it took Ms. Merkel to form a government after last September’s election was the longest ever in the postwar history of Germany and an indication of her weakened position. After an initial attempt with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens environmentalist party failed, she had to return to the grand coalition, buying support from the Social Democrats as well as the CSU with key cabinet posts.

Europe accord may be elusive

It is an open question how much success Ms. Merkel will have in getting European support. She met late Monday with the new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, but he is largely seen as a puppet of the real political leaders in Italy. Matteo Salvini, head of the nationalist League and interior minister in the new government, has already talked to his German counterpart about cooperating on immigration policy.

Together with Austria’s conservative government, the group forms a hardline wedge in resisting refugees. This not even taking account of strong anti-immigration forces in East European countries as well as Britain.

Italy has been criticized for refusing to let a ship dock that had rescued several hundred migrants at sea, forcing it instead to sail to Valencia, Spain. However, Mr. Conte reaped some praise from Mr. Trump at the G7 summit earlier this month for being “very strong” on immigration.

Ultimately, it will come down to how much backbone Mr. Seehofer has. If at this point he finally does give in and yield any significant ground to Ms. Merkel, his CSU will have a hard time facing voters in October.

A German expression has it that someone is at end of their “Latin” when they can no longer talk their way out of a situation. After 13 years of equivocating, procrastinating and waffling, Ms. Merkel may be at the end of her Latin.

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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