Dramatic showdown

Seehofer's last-ditch attempt to agree on migration issue

Sitzung des CSU Vorstandes und der CSU Landesgruppe Horst Seehofer verlässt um 1 Uhr 50 nachts die P
Bordering on resignation. Source: Imago

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says he’s making “one last attempt” to persuade the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to yield in the dispute over asylum policy. Mr. Seehofer, who’s also leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies, said the heads of both parties will meet on Monday afternoon to thrash out a compromise. Should this fail, he will step down from both posts.

Mr. Seehofer had already offered his resignation late on Sunday evening during the CSU leadership’s meeting. Senior party officials including Alexander Dobrindt, joint head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary groups, tried to convince the interior minister to reconsider. In the end, Mr. Seehofer agreed to meet with Ms. Merkel in the hope of reaching an agreement – a “concession,” he said, that was in the interests of Germany and the governing coalition. Otherwise, he would have stepped down immediately, he said.

The Seehofer-Merkel meeting is scheduled for 5pm CEST. At 2pm, a joint session of the CDU/CSU parliamentary groups is due to convene in the Bundestag. The CDU’s leaders, who are currently gathered in Berlin for a second straight day of discussions, said they still see room for a compromise solution in the migration dispute.

Three options for the CSU

At the heart of the dispute are Mr. Seehofer’s plans – part of a 63-page “master plan” circulated to CSU leaders – to reserve the right to reject some asylum seekers, who have already registered in other EU countries, when they reach the German border. But Ms. Merkel has rejected any unilateral action by Germany, and insists on a coordinated European approach, as agreed at last week’s EU asylum-policy summit in Brussels.

Mr. Seehofer, after talks with Ms. Merkel on Saturday evening, complained the conversation was “ineffective” as the chancellor refused to budge her position on the EU deal. “The sum total of everything we’ve agreed on is the same as what the CSU wants,” the chancellor told broadcaster ZDF the next day. “That’s my personal view, but the CSU have to decide for themselves.” On Sunday, Ms. Merkel’s party passed a resolution backing her stance.

After almost eight hours of talk with the CSU party leadership, Mr. Seehofer said he saw three options: The CSU bows to the chancellor’s asylum policy; or, as interior minister, he turns back some migrants at Germany’s borders, a riskier option which could destroy the coalition; or, lastly, he resigns as party leader and minister. The cantankerous Bavarian leader, who turns 69 this Wednesday, coyly said he would make a final decision on his job within three days.

Make-or-break issue

The quarrel threatens to derail Germany’s fragile coalition and the 70-year-old alliance of CDU and CSU. If the CSU were to withdraw its support for Ms. Merkel’s party, her options would include joining forces with the migration-friendly Greens or heading a minority government. Although she called the standoff “very serious,” Ms. Merkel underlined her support for Germany’s negotiation position with EU partners, and again argued that this would be weakened if Berlin opts for a unilateral migration policy.

The chancellor had fought hard to reach a deal in Brussels. She said Greece and Spain had agreed to take back migrants stopped at the Bavarian-Austrian border who were shown to have entered their countries first, a commitment she hoped would assuage Mr. Seehofer’s concerns. At the Brussels summit, some 14 EU states had agreed to take back migrants who reached Germany, Ms. Merkel’s government said. But three countries later denied they were part of the deal: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

Some observers suspect that Mr. Seehofer’s confrontation with Ms. Merkel is linked to this fall’s state elections in Bavaria, where the CSU faces a challenge from the AfD, a party of the populist far right.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrats demanded a meeting of the coalition’s tripartite committee later on Monday to discuss the future of Ms. Merkel’s government, warning they won’t automatically accept the compromise reached between the CDU and the CSU. “We expect that the CDU and CSU end their differences,” said SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles. That gathering is scheduled for 10pm CEST.

Jeremy Gray is an editor at Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt staff contributed to this report. To contact the author: j.gray@handelsblattgroup.com

Updated on July 2, 2018 at 3pm

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