Germany's Conservative Meltdown The Approaching End to Merkel's Tenure

With the chancellor under heavy fire from Bavarian conservatives, Germany's political landscape may be facing radical upheaval. Angela Merkel might lose her job and the country's traditional center-right partnership could soon end. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel


"At some point, I would like to find the right time to leave politics," Angela Merkel said. "That's a lot more difficult than I had imagined. But I don't want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics."

The comments came in response to a question about her life goals outside of politics way back in 1999. Merkel had just become secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and sat down for an interview with the photographer Herlinde Koelbl for her book "Spuren der Macht" (Traces of Power).

That was also the year in which Merkel's rise within the CDU began, along with the almost revolutionary restructuring of the party. In subsequent years, Merkel jettisoned so many traditional CDU positions that it is more accurate to speak of a re-founding of the party than a process of modernization. Many conservatives have since been unable to recognize their old party. And all the while, discomfort with Merkel's leadership continued to grow, year after year, within the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party.

Since fall 2015, when almost a million people arrived in Germany as a result of Merkel's liberal refugee policies, this discomfort has mutated into open rejection. And now, in June 2018, the CSU has had enough, even if there isn't currently an obvious trigger for their vexation aside from approaching Bavarian state elections scheduled for mid-October. They would like to see the immediate end of the Merkel era -- there is really no other way to interpret comments made recently by CSU party leadership. And to achieve that goal, they are prepared to sacrifice the decades-long partnership between the two conservative parties.

"Merkel's political approach has reached the end of its tether," says a CSU parliamentarian. Discussions about Merkel within the CSU are characterized by rage and malice. And CSU leader Horst Seehofer is threatening to defy Merkel's constitutionally guaranteed power to determine policy guidelines.

Formally, the chaos we are seeing in the German political landscape these days stems from just one of the 63 items on Seehofer's so-called "masterplan" for reforming refugee policy: his call for people to be turned back from the German border if they have already applied for asylum or been registered as a refugee in another European Union member state. For quite some time, the CSU itself seemed unsure as to exactly who it wanted to turn away at the border, but the main thing was to take a tough line.

The Fall of Merkel?

Merkel, meanwhile, views such a policy as the kind of unilateral German move that she would like to avoid. She insists that there must be a "European solution," by which she means a reform of EU migration policy negotiated with all of Germany's European Union partners.

In truth, though, it's not about that one item on Seehofer's list. The CSU would like to put an end to the refugee policy that is closely linked with Merkel's name. If Seehofer and his party fulfill their promise to soon begin turning people back from the border -- on which no senior CSU politician leaves any doubt -- then Merkel would only be left with two options: that of abandoning her own convictions or of consummating the break between the CDU and CSU.

Ironically, it is Merkel's own sister party has triggered the most significant political crisis in her almost 13-year tenure as chancellor. It remains unclear how it will end, but chatter about the chancellor's potentially imminent demise has now become a constant at every water cooler in Berlin.

In hindsight, it seems as though the conflict we are now seeing between the CDU and CSU is but the logical final act of a link that has always been slightly neurotic, but which transformed into open distrust and even hate since the fall of 2015. The steady stream of "compromises" on refugee policy could only briefly conceal just how bad the atmosphere had become in this partnership. These sister parties haven't been friends for quite some time.

According to a survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL, the majority of German citizens believe that the CDU and the CSU should split and go their separate ways. And if that were in fact to happen, and there are plenty of indications it might, it wouldn't just be the end of Merkel's tenure. It would also herald the end of a party system that has shaped Germany for the last 70 years and provided a fair degree of stability, particularly when compared to Germany's neighbors. And it would mark the beginning of a government crisis: It seems unrealistic to expect that the CDU and SPD would stay in power as a minority government or that they would bring the Greens on board to replace the CSU. At SPD headquarters in Berlin, preparations are already being made for new elections this fall.

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Merkel still has a week to avoid the break. She hopes to be able to come up with her "European solution" to the refugee problem by July 1, the CSU having opted to give her a brief respite even though there are some in the party who argued against doing so.

The way the chancellor is being pushed around by her sister party these days has degenerated into an embarrassing political spectacle. Still, the chancellor has chosen to confront the challenge and is fighting hard to retain her hold on power. Or at least her hold on her office.

Much More at Stake

But it is difficult to imagine how Merkel and the CSU leadership will be able to yet again arrive at one of those compromises that have repeatedly been exposed as nothing but a chimera over the years. The mutual mistrust in the two camps is simply too great. What is currently taking place in Bavaria and Berlin is unprecedented in the history of the partnership between the two parties. To be sure, there has been significant turbulence in the past, most famously in 1976 when the alliance almost broke apart for good. But the conflict today is deeper and more bitter. And far more is at stake.

On Monday, the Shakespearean drama currently being staged by the two conservative parties was on full display. Following a crisis meeting between the two party leadership committees, Merkel and Seehofer held press conferences at exactly the same time to issue their latest threats against each other. Political partners generally try to avoid concurrent press events. Adversaries, however, do not.

The result was that Seehofer in Munich had to be told by a journalist what Merkel had just said minutes before in Berlin. Namely that the question of turning back refugees at the border touched on her constitutional privilege to determine government policy. The journalist then asked what Seehofer, as German interior minister, had to say about that.

Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union
DPA

Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union

Seehofer stopped short. "She didn't wave around her policy guideline competence when talking to me. That would be rather unusual between two party chairs," he finally said.

It wasn't the only unusual incident of the past few days. Both Merkel and Seehofer called meetings of their party leadership committees to ensure they had the necessary support in the conflict between the sister parties.

Even before the CSU meeting, of course, there had been little doubt that the party would back Seehofer. After he had sketched out the basics of his "masterplan" to party leaders -- a plan that nobody had seen aside from him and the chancellor -- Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, who has mounted a significant challenge within the CSU to Seehofer's leadership, made it clear that the CSU was determined to implement every single point of the plan. "There is no going back. That's what people are expecting from us," he said. At the conclusion of the meeting, former party head and honorary chairman Edmund Stoiber held another of his famously spirited addresses. He reminded his audience of the rise of the right-wing extremist Republikaner party in the 1980s, which, Stoiber said, was only effectively stopped by introducing significant changes to the country's asylum laws. The refugee crisis doesn't just represent a danger to the CDU-CSU partnership, he said, but also to social cohesion. The CDU and "that Ms. Karrenbauer," Stoiber said, referring to CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, just don't get it. The leadership committee cheered and rollicked as if they were in a beer tent.

The Party's DNA

At the exact same time, the CDU was meeting in Berlin -- a bit more subdued, but no less determined. The CDU can't simply accept everything the CSU throws at them, warned Merkel's deputy Thomas Strobl. It's about "the party's DNA," said Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "You can't treat the CDU this way," called out Otto Wulff, head of the wing of the CDU representing voters over 60.

Merkel has managed to present the conflict to the CDU as a frontal attack on her person, a characterization essentially consistent with how it is seen in the CSU as well. Doing so has guaranteed her the strong backing of her party, even if there are plenty who disagree with her on refugee policy.

Following the press conferences, it was definitively clear that all attempts to defuse the conflict had failed. On the Thursday before last, ahead of separate meetings of the CDU and CSU caucuses, floor leader Volker Kauder of the CDU and senior CSU parliamentarian Alexander Dobrindt had met to evaluate the damage that had already been done. Dobrindt insisted that he didn't want to endanger the party alliance. "But that's what you are doing," countered Kauder. An additional meeting the next day also produced no results.

Graphic: DER SPIEGEL survey on refugees and CDU/CSU cooperation
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: DER SPIEGEL survey on refugees and CDU/CSU cooperation

Merkel and Seehofer also spoke on the phone and assured each other that neither would overrule the other. "Are you going to invoke policy guideline competence?" Seehofer asked when the conversation once again turned to the issue of turning back migrants at the border. "No, no," Merkel assured him. Only to do just that a few days later.

An additional attempt at conciliation likewise bore no fruit. Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, eminence grise of the CDU, requested a meeting with Seehofer, which took place in Schäuble's office in German parliament last Friday. Schäuble insisted to Seehofer that the CDU and CSU had to stay together, a position that Seehofer agreed with before then repeating his own position. Contrary to some within the CDU, the CSU leader didn't get the impression that Schäuble was interested in replacing Merkel and becoming chancellor himself.

On Saturday, a rumor began making the rounds among Merkel's confidantes in the Chancellery that CDU parliamentarian Christian von Stetten of Baden-Württemberg was assembling a group of CDU lawmakers who were critical of Merkel's leadership in preparation for her downfall. Stetten indignantly denied the claims, but the incident shows that Merkel's team has become so rattled that they believe anything is possible.

Yet Another Compromise?

On Sunday evening, Merkel invited CDU leaders to party headquarters in Berlin. The group watched the World Cup match between Germany and Mexico together before discussing how to approach the party leadership committee meeting scheduled for the next day in order to secure necessary support for Merkel. Her plan to take two weeks before returning to the leadership committee for consultations was unanimously supported. Seehofer had already indicated to Merkel that the CSU would also give her two weeks.

By Tuesday, though, Merkel had realized that the gesture was not the prelude to yet another compromise. At midday that day, she met with French President Emmanuel Macron just outside of Berlin. The Chancellery and the Élysée Palace had long been arguing about eurozone reform, but on this sunny June day, the differences suddenly vanished. Macron received the eurozone budget he had been demanding for so long and Merkel received Macron's assurance that France would help Germany on the refugee question.

Macron had hardly left before the chancellor received a text message from Seehofer. "In the name of the CSU, I am requesting a coalition meeting to be held next week," he wrote. Seehofer was offended that he hadn't been informed of the deal with Macron in advance while Olaf Scholz of the SPD, as the senior cabinet representative of the conservatives' junior coalition partner, had been. Merkel tried to calm Seehofer down. Everything had already been discussed with the CSU, she wrote back. Only the SPD were still a potential problem. "I talked to Scholz because the SPD wanted a lot more than we did."

But Seehofer wasn't having it. Just a couple hours after his text message to Merkel, the mass-circulation tabloid Bild published an article that made it sound as though the CSU was seeking to torpedo Merkel's deal.

Both in Seehofer's Interior Ministry and in Merkel's Chancellery, preparations are being made for the coming battle, the endgame between the sister parties. Seehofer is preparing to hold a joint press conference in the coming days with the heads of the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Germany's domestic intelligence agency) and the federal police force. All three, he says, support his position.

In the Chancellery, meanwhile, they are preparing for zero hour. Who says, the chancellor's team wonders, that Merkel has to wait until Interior Minister Seehofer orders that asylum-seekers be turned away at Germany's border. She could simply preempt him by ordering that the borders remain open. Article 65 of the German constitution, after all, is quite clear: "The Federal Chancellor shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy."

Singing the Requiem

That could be true, Seehofer responds when asked about Article 65. But he alone is authorized to issued orders to the federal police. Plus, if it came to that, he would justify his order with the need to ensure security and order in the country. "It would be a world premier if the chancellor were to order her interior minister not to do so."

And if she does? "If the chancellor doesn't agree with my policies, then she should bring the coalition to an end," Seehofer says. He insists he isn't looking to topple Merkel, but the credibility of the CSU is at stake. "If we cave in now, we can start singing the requiem."

Inside the Chancellery as in the Interior Ministry, legal opinions are currently being prepared on the question as to who is authorized to issue orders to the federal police should it come to that. That's how far things have already gone. It is clear to both protagonists: If Seehofer defies the will of the chancellor, she will have to fire him. And he would accept that, because there is one thing he fears more than the end of the governing coalition: the accusation that the CSU is kowtowing to the chancellor. "We can't sacrifice our credibility," he says.

Seehofer is hard on himself for not having been insistent enough in the past and failing to force Merkel to change course. Now, voters in Bavaria, he fears, no longer trust the CSU to assert itself in Berlin.

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