An Interview with Seehofer 'We Want a Solution to the Immigration Problem'

For months, the refugee policy rift between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her nominal political ally Horst Seehofer, the powerful governor of Bavaria, has been widening. In an interview with SPIEGEL, Seehofer says the rift could worsen if Merkel doesn't agree to a hard ceiling on immigration.

The debate has been raging for more than a year now. Ever since German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened up the country's borders to refugees in early September of 2015, Horst Seehofer has been using every opportunity at his disposal to voice his disagreement. As head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) party, he is not someone who can easily be shrugged off. The CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The two parties, which collectively are known simply as the "union," have a long tradition of campaigning together ahead of general elections and of divvying up cabinet posts should the center-right end up in government, which, for the last 12 years, it has. The CSU has no chapters in any other state while the CDU has no state chapter in Bavaria.

As the rift has widened, Seehofer has begun calling that long partnership into question, even raising the possibility that his party might campaign on its own ahead of next year's parliamentary elections and put up a CSU chancellor candidate . To avoid that eventuality, he is demanding that Merkel take clear steps toward reversing her immigration policies and adopting a ceiling on the number of refugees Germany is willing to take in, a step Merkel has refused to take, citing potential inconsistencies with the German constitution. Last week, the CSU released a paper, called "Germany Must Remain Germany," outlining steps it would like to see taken, including the abolishment of dual citizenship and a preference for migrants from the "Christian-Western culture." It is demands such as these that have led some to compare the CSU with the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained significant amounts of support in recent months in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL spoke with Seehofer about his relationship with the chancellor, his vision for the country's immigration policy and accusations of populism that have been levelled against him.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Seehofer, when a husband spends an entire year maligning his wife in public, should he not at some point gather the courage to put an end to the relationship?

Seehofer: Every married couple has disputes from time to time, and in every good marriage, an attempt is made to overcome the dispute. That is what we are currently trying to do.

SPIEGEL: The intensity and abrasiveness of your criticism of Angela Merkel is without precedent. When are you going to finally actually do something, like pull the CSU out of the federal government? Doing so wouldn't even trigger a political crisis, since the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) would still have a parliamentary majority without the CSU.

Seehofer: Leaving the government would be disadvantageous for both the CSU and the CDU. That's why we aren't giving up and are continuing to search for a future-oriented solution. Angela Merkel and the CDU have in the meantime adopted several of our demands. What we now need is a system of rules, a kind of guarantee, for drastically limiting the influx of refugees. The past  cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel still hasn't received an invitation from you to attend the CSU party convention. And you have said you're not certain you will attend the CDU party convention. Such mutual appearances have decades of tradition in Germany. Don't you think your bickering has sunk to a playground level?

Seehofer: Our politics are steered by logic. If Angela Merkel was to appear at the CSU convention and I was to visit the CDU, despite the fact that we are miles apart on the essential coordination of our policies, you know full well the damage that would do to the union. The expectation is that party leaders solve problems. That's why substantial differences must first be cleared up. I can't yet tell you today if we will be successful. But since last weekend, I am quite a bit more confident that we will be.

SPIEGEL: You have threatened to file a legal complaint against the federal government and you invited Angela Merkel's political adversary Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to a meeting of CSU leaders. Given such provocations, can one still speak of "sister parties" and of a "union"?

Seehofer: Yes, of course. We are sisters and we are a union. The last year has been a difficult period for the CDU and the CSU, the most difficult period that I myself have actively experienced. We have seen election results that can make none of us happy. In Baden-Württemberg, the CDU is behind the Green Party and in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania it is behind the Alternative for Germany (AfD). But we are now looking ahead to the future.

SPIEGEL: Your party can bluster and threaten all it wants, but you will ultimately have to find common ground with the CDU so as not to do too much damage to the CSU.

Seehofer: No one has to tell me that constant conflict, and I emphasize constant conflict, is damaging. But it is also true that policies will have to change if we want to win back trust.

SPIEGEL: There is something else that your party has to worry about: If the CDU was to establish a chapter in Bavaria at some point, it would be the end of the CSU's absolute majority in the state. Former CDU general secretary Ruprecht Polenz recently mentioned the possibility.

Seehofer: There are many brainy people from the past, but we're not particularly impressed with such talk. Our contact people are in Berlin, the chancellor first and foremost.

SPIEGEL: We have examined dozens of interviews that you have given in recent months. You talk a lot about refugee policy, but one thing is constantly left ambiguous, perhaps intentionally. What concrete steps does Angela Merkel have to take before you will say: "Okay, now we'll back off?"

Seehofer: We want a solution to the immigration problem. To do that, we first need a ceiling. We don't want unlimited immigration like we saw last year and that's why we need binding measures as a guarantee. When announcements are made that we are combatting the root causes of flight, then they must be combined with concrete measures. When it is said that those who don't have a right to asylum will be sent back, then we together with the federal government must enact a detailed, binding repatriation program. We want a clear system of rules that clearly and credibly reduces immigration to a reasonable level.

SPIEGEL: So you are sticking to your demand for a hard ceiling of 200,000 immigrants per year despite its potential inconsistencies with the guaranteed fundamental right to asylum?

Seehofer: Yes. We want a policy that safeguards this ceiling. We also, by the way, already changed the constitution to make this possible 23 years ago. With the support of all parties. Our constitution does not require us to take everybody who appears at our borders and demands asylum. And when someone comes from a safe country of origin, we can immediately repatriate them. The ceiling will work and it is consistent with the constitution.

SPIEGEL: The chancellor and several other CDU politicians have repeatedly insisted that they will not accept a ceiling. If the approval of such a ceiling is the prerequisite for an agreement, then there won't be any agreement.

Seehofer: We'll see. We will not back away from the 200,000 ceiling. It's about our credibility, plain and simple.

SPIEGEL: Given that anything seems possible at this point, is a situation conceivable whereby the CDU enters the campaign with Merkel as its candidate for chancellor and the CSU says: We won't support her?

Seehofer: We as a party will make personnel decisions in the first quarter of 2017. German history is full of serious mistakes pertaining to premature personnel decisions.

SPIEGEL: Last weekend, CSU leaders presented a paper containing the party's refugee policy demands and it is full of odd sentences. Such as this one: "We are opposed to our cosmopolitan country being changed by immigration or refugee flows." How cosmopolitan can a country be if it doesn't want to be changed by immigration?

Seehofer: The paper's title is: "Germany Must Remain Germany." The chancellor has used almost the exact same formulation. When she says it, it's considered liberal and future oriented. When we say it, it's seen as reactionary and backwards.

SPIEGEL: Merkel never said that immigration cannot be allowed to change the country.

Seehofer: Look, Bavaria is a dynamic, cosmopolitan state. Those who don't adapt fall behind. But we need ground rules. In every governmental speech I give before state parliament, I say: Bavaria will remain Bavaria. That's not a contradiction.

SPIEGEL: There are other controversial sentences in your paper. "In the future, immigrants from our Christian-Western culture must be given priority." Do you intend to select immigrants based on their religion?

Seehofer: Nonsense. For people who must fear for their lives because of their religion or political convictions, the protection provided by Article 16a of the German constitution, the right to asylum, applies. Nobody is questioning that. Irrespective of that, there is immigration that must be regulated, to bring skilled personnel to Germany, for example. We have to establish criteria for that. Their affiliation with the Christian-Western culture should be one of them. Such people are the easiest to integrate.

SPIEGEL: You don't want any computer specialists from India in Bavaria?

Seehofer: We say "priority." That doesn't exclude a Chinese vice president of a Bavarian university, as we've had before. But even if we remain flexible, we need ground rules. That is what we are trying to express with this sentence.

SPIEGEL: The paper is full of sentences that lack clarity.

Seehofer: Oh my God, every Saturday I read sentences in SPIEGEL that lack clarity.

SPIEGEL: We just wonder whether the ambiguity is intentional. Whether you perhaps consciously intend to send messages to the far-right spectrum for which you have a different explanation in an interview with us.

Seehofer: Our thinking isn't nearly that serpentine. Our paper is being interpreted in all kinds of ways that aren't explicitly stated.

SPIEGEL: We just want to find out how certain things were meant.

Seehofer: I know full well what is being said about us in this one square kilometer of the Berlin government quarter and which false trails are being laid. We are always presented as the evil Bavarians who only want to throw a wrench in the system. When we say how we see things, we are instructed to adopt a more moderate tone. It's always the same game. And it's always the same people.

SPIEGEL: In the Bundestag recently, the chancellor called for the use of more moderate language. Do you think she was talking about you?

Seehofer: I wondered who she was talking about. One day later, I spoke with (SPD head) Sigmar Gabriel and he was wondering the same thing. There are nice political formulations that can apply to everyone and to nobody. I wouldn't know how I could be more reserved in my formulations than I already am.

SPIEGEL: Another question about your paper: In rejecting dual citizenship, the paper says that it is impossible to "serve two masters." We always thought that it wasn't citizens who served their state, but the other way around.

Seehofer: You aren't asking why we are opposed to dual citizenship. Instead, you are quibbling over locution. The sentence is true and completely okay. I am allergic to this paternalism and censorship.

SPIEGEL: In the paper, it says that the constitution applies in Germany and not Sharia law. Why do you insist on emphasizing something that goes without saying?

Seehofer: Unfortunately, that doesn't go without saying. You should conduct an interview with security policymakers about parallel justice systems in immigrant communities.

SPIEGEL: The sentence suggests that there is currently a struggle underway as to whether the constitution or Sharia applies. You are presenting it as a larger problem than it really is.

Seehofer: The only thing left is for you to ask: "When was the last time you encountered somebody wearing a burqa and does that justify the debate you are conducting?"

SPIEGEL: We mostly encounter women wearing burqas in the expensive shopping streets of Munich.

Seehofer: It's great if you don't think there are any problems. The people see things differently and they have a clear stance on burqas. As a party of the people, we make it clear that we take people's concerns seriously. That is our job. It's the best way to combat extremism from both the right and the left.

SPIEGEL: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne has accused you of doing the work of the right-wing populists.

Seehofer: I don't understand Mr. Woelki on that point. But I would be happy to speak with him about this misunderstanding.

SPIEGEL: The right-wing populist AfD has three main enemies: Angela Merkel, immigrants and the public broadcasting system. Ever since you went after public broadcasters ARD and ZDF and demanded their consolidation, one has the impression that the AfD's enemies are the same as the CSU's enemies.

Seehofer: First of all, Angela Merkel and the CDU are not our political adversaries. The CDU and the CSU are sister parties. When it comes to ARD and ZDF, I am interested in the question as to how they can be more efficient in the future. They are, after all, financed by contributions from German citizens. That is completely different than the "lying press " accusations made by the AfD.

SPIEGEL: You have often complained about the news coverage of the public broadcasters. And now you want to consolidate them.

Seehofer: The focus here is on media policy. You at SPIEGEL also talk about how you should adjust to the changing media world. I am on the ZDF administrative board. There are myriad structures at this broadcaster that remind one of a government agency. I want to talk about how we can improve programming while at the same time lowering contributions.

SPIEGEL: You are constantly emphasizing how dissatisfied you are with politicians in Berlin. Would you be happy if Angela Merkel was to break  Helmut Kohl's record of 16 years as German chancellor?

Seehofer: I hold Angela Merkel in high regard. But you won't get an answer from me to that question.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Seehofer, thank you for this interview.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 38/2016 (September 17th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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