Angela Merkel billed last week’s EU summit on migration as a “make or break” moment. But it’s looking like “break”, as far as her governing coalition is concerned.
When the German chancellor returned from the gathering of European Union leaders Friday having secured a tough but vague new deal on migration, she hoped it would be enough to appease her coalition partner’s demands for action.
Turns out it wasn’t. On Sunday, her chief antagonist, Horst Seehofer – Germany’s Interior Minister and head of her junior coalition partner, the Christian Social Union – threatened to resign, saying Merkel had failed to push through his party’s demands on border control at the EU summit. His hardball stance has the potential to collapse Merkel’s fragile coalition government, just months after it took office.
At the urging of CSU colleagues, Seehofer has agreed to hold last-ditch crisis talks with Merkel, expected to begin at 5 p.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) Monday, in a final bid to resolve the issue. Seehofer has said he’ll make his final decision within three days; without the support of his CSU, the Bavarian-based party that’s had a tight alliance with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union for decades, Merkel’s coalition will no longer command a parliamentary majority.
At the heart of the standoff is Seehofer’s threat to close Germany’s borders to migrants who have already been registered in another EU country – a bid, ahead of regional elections in October, to act on public anxieties over immigration in a country that’s taken in more migrants since the 2015 migration crisis than any other in Europe.
Merkel had rejected that proposal, amid fears it would set off a chain reaction that would collapse the regime of border-free travel with the EU’s Schengen Zone, in favor of attempting to find a common solution with other European countries. She returned from last week’s EU summit with agreements with 14 other European countries pledging to take back any migrants reaching Germany who had first been registered in their jurisdiction. But for Seehofer, this was not enough.
Nobody knows how the crisis will play out, but analysts says there are signs the CSU’s brinkmanship over the issue may end up backfiring, and Merkel could survive the standoff.
“The big question is, if the CSU was serious in taking on Merkel, would they be willing to potentially bring down the government and therefore causing new elections?” Nina Schick, director at political consulting firm Rasmussen Global, told VICE News. “They’d risk irking the German public and destabilizing the country – and also potentially hurting the EU.”
Opinion polls have suggested that Bavarians are happier with Merkel than with Seehofer, further weakening his position and suggesting his hardball stance could be hurting his party’s prospects come the October regional elections.
Seehofer’s stance has also come in for widespread criticism from across the political spectrum for jeopardizing Germany’s stability for the sake of a political spat within the conservative camp.
“I think the way in which this debate is being conducted is damaging not only Germany's image but also, first and foremost, its government,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Lawmaker Sonja Steffen, whose Social Democrat Party is also a member of the governing coalition, told German news agency DW that the renewed bickering was “incomprehensible.” “I hope that the CSU and especially Horst Seehofer come to their senses,” she said.
On the Left, Green party politician Anton Hofreiter slammed Seehofer. “Whoever treats his responsibility for the country so cavalierly and egotistically can no longer responsibly perform his ministerial duties.”
Even the far-right Alternative for Germany, the party widely seen as having prompted Seehofer’s hard-line stance on immigration, in a bid to blunt their appeal in October regional elections, was critical of Seehofer, with lawmaker Alice Weidel accusing him of having performed “a cheap bit of theater.”
The road ahead for Merkel is murky. If Seehofer resigns, or is asked to go, it would remove Merkel’s most troublesome opponent within her government, but would leave the future of the relationship with the CSU in doubt. If the alliance with the CSU collapsed, Merkel could attempt to run a minority government with the Social Democrats, seeking support from the opposition from issue to issue in order to pass legislation – an approach she’s previously said she doesn’t favor.
Another possibility is that she could face a vote of no confidence – although her opponents would need to gather behind a new candidate, unlikely given the stark differences between them. More likely is that Germany could face a new round of elections – an unpopular prospect in a country that held its last national elections in September, and was left with a caretaker government until a coalition government could be cobbled together in March.
Cover image: Chancellor Angela Merkel, arriving for the faction meeting between the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU) in the Bundestag (German Parliament) in Berlin, July 2, 2018. Photo by: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images