Merkel coalition's fate hangs in balance over elusive migrant deal

02 July 2018 - 11:05 By AFP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany, July 2, 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany, July 2, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition risked breaking apart Monday, as her hardline conservative Bavarian allies pushed a showdown over migrant policy after she was unmoved by her interior minister's threat to resign.

Horst Seehofer insisted on his plan to turn away asylum seekers at the border with Austria registered in other European countries, as he rejected EU deals reached last week by Merkel as inadequate.

"I said that I would vacate both my offices (as federal interior minister and CSU party chief) in the next three days," Seehofer told reporters in Munich after talks with his party stretching into the small hours.

But soon after, Seehofer said he would hold last-ditch talks with Merkel's CDU "in hopes of reaching an understanding". The meeting is set to begin at 1500 GMT.

Seehofer had earlier complained he had "no support" over his plan to shut Germany's doors. Other CSU bosses, however, refused to accept his departure and kept strategy talks going.

The future of Merkel's governing coalition between the CDU-CSU alliance and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) appeared to hang by a thread, as media slammed what they called a reckless game of chicken.

"It is fair to ask: has the CSU lost its mind?" Der Spiegel reporter Rene Pfister asked.

"In the end the government could fall and an old, proud party could descend into ridiculousness -- and all of that to solve a problem that in reality hardly is one" given the dramatically lower numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Germany this year.

'What's right'

If Merkel holds firm and Seehofer does quit, the CSU could offer a replacement interior minister if it aims to remain tied to her party.

Alternatively it could break up the two parties' seven-decade-long partnership, depriving Merkel of her majority in parliament and pitching Germany into uncharted political waters.

To politically survive, Merkel could attempt a minority government, seek a new coalition partner in the ecologist Greens or pro-business Free Democrats, or orchestrate a no-confidence vote in parliament that could trigger new elections.

As he entered a CDU crisis meeting Monday, party deputy leader Armin Laschet insisted that the sister parties "want to hold onto" their alliance.

"It is a precious thing for our party system and that is why I'm confident that we will succeed," he said.

CDU general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said earlier that party leaders were "united" behind Merkel and "effective, humane solutions together with our European partners".

Merkel, who has been in office since 2005, warned last week the battle over migration could decide the EU's future.

After the Bavarians' relentless pressure on her, European leaders agreed new measures Friday to reduce immigration and so-called "secondary migration" of asylum-seekers between countries.

Merkel also proposed that migrants arriving in Germany who first registered in another EU country should be placed in special "admission centres" under restrictive conditions.

A document she sent to the CSU and SPD also outlined deals with 16 other countries to return already-registered migrants if they reached Germany.

However Seehofer rejected Merkel's assessment that the EU-wide measures would "have the same effect" as his demand to turn away migrants registered elsewhere in the bloc.

As the CDU and CSU parties hunkered down in Berlin and Munich, a compromise appeared ever more elusive.

"It's not about who comes out on top, but about what's right," Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder told the CSU gathering.

'Merkel-bashing' 

The "Union" of CDU and CSU have blended the southern state's beer-and-lederhosen-infused conservatism with more moderate politics, forming a centre-right force that dominated Germany for decades.

The CSU's showdown with Merkel comes as it faces an October state election in Bavaria in which it fears losing its cherished absolute majority.

Political stability was upset by Merkel's 2015 decision to keep borders open to migrants and refugees arriving from the Middle East via the Balkans, Hungary and Austria.

Since then, more than one million people have arrived in Germany, while Merkel's governments have repeatedly tightened immigration and asylum laws.

Nevertheless, the anti-refugee, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time last year, leading to months of paralysis while Merkel struggled to put together a workable coalition.

Opinion polls point to the AfD making a similar entrance to Bavaria's regional legislature in October -- giving it seats in all of Germany's 16 states.

Weeks of "Merkel-bashing", however, have failed to help the CSU, as a Forsa poll last week showed around 68 percent of Bavarians backed Merkel's quest for a Europe-wide answer to migration rather than Germany going it alone.

A separate Forsa poll Monday showed that Seehofer had even failed to rally a majority of CSU voters behind him, with 49 percent backing Merkel in the dispute against 48 percent for the interior minister and party leader.

X