Merkel Under Fire German Conservatives Deeply Split over Refugees

Conservative political allies are turning their backs on Chancellor Angela Merkel in the refugee crisis. Now, powerful Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer has threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies are increasingly coming under fire from those in her own party.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies are increasingly coming under fire from those in her own party.


Ingolstadt's Stadttheater is typically a place for light entertainment. At the end of the month, for example, the theater will be staging "Tartuffe," Molière's comedy about religion and hypocrisy during the period of French absolutism.

But last Wednesday, the 85 municipal politicians from Bavaria who gathered there were in no mood for fun. They were there for a meeting with Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer and to report to him about how their communities are handling the many refugees who are currently flowing into Bavaria across the state's border with Austria.

In truth, of course, Seehofer knows the situation well since he speaks with municipal politicians from his party, the Christian Social Union, every day. But this is a political show -- working title: "The Bavarian Governor Takes On the Chancellor" -- and he needed a stage. Unsurprisingly, the complaints began immediately. One participant complained that capacity had been reached while others vented their anger with Austria for simply waving the refugees through to Germany. Ultimately, though, the spotlight was shone squarely on Angela Merkel and her refusal thus far to place an upper limit on the number of migrants Germany could accept.

Seehofer, who has plenty of experience in the art of political theater, did not attempt to talk them down. Rather, he magnified it. Berlin, he said, has to finally face up to reality and that it was time for an act of "effective self-defense." On Friday, at an emergency session of the Bavarian cabinet (which had been planned for some time), he went even further. Bavaria, he threatened, may file a complaint against Merkel's refugee policies at Germany's Federal Constitutional Court. The chancellor's refusal to set an upper limit on the number of refugees the country can absorb, Seehofer says, violates the constitutionally guaranteed independence of German states.

The two are actually political allies. Seehofer's CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and four of her cabinet members are from the CSU. But the two leaders are deeply divided when it comes to the refugee crisis. And they have a history. Merkel, after all, is responsible for the bitterest defeat of Seehofer's political career, back in 2004 when the Bavarian politician was on the losing end of a debate over healthcare. Seehofer has never forgotten. Still, a state governor calling for self-defense against a chancellor and threatening her with a high-court complaint represents a frightening new dimension.

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

As is often the case among Germany's conservatives, this debate is about power and conceit. But this time, there is also an issue at the center of the clash. Seehofer and Merkel represent polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the refugee debate. Seehofer stands for barbed wire. Merkel stands for peace and acceptance. Seehofer would like to force Merkel to recognize that Germany is unable to accept more refugees. In the service of that message, he even went so far as to invite Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Bavaria a few weeks ago -- a man who used teargas and water cannons to drive refugees away from his borders.

But the louder Seehofer complains, the more Merkel escapes into the vagaries of global politics. "It is not in my power to determine how many come to us," she said in the course of the Wednesday evening talk show "Anne Will." It is a striking sentence. How many refugees can Germany handle? Eight-hundred thousand? A million? Two million?

Merkel says she doesn't want to talk about numbers. She says that peace must first be established in the Middle East before the inflow of refugees will cease. Seehofer, though, argues that Merkel must only own up to the fact that Germany has been overwhelmed  and the refugees will cease coming of their own accord. More than anything, though, their public spat serves to demonstrate that the debate has led German politicians to lose sight of the political center.

In recent years, Merkel has become a true world leader. No chancellor before her had as much influence on the world stage as she does now and hardly any of her predecessors enjoyed the degree of trust that voters have placed in her over the years. That trust was always dependent on Merkel's predictability. Who, after all, really knew the details of the European Stability Mechanism, designed under Merkel's supervision to save the euro? Who was really guilty of the escalation in Ukraine? German voters just assumed that Merkel knew what she was doing.

She was the polar opposite of Seehofer, a political gambler whose overriding political principle appears to be that of always being at the center of controversy. He has never shied away from taking significant risks, but now that Merkel is the one out on a limb, Seehofer has busied himself with the search for a saw.

'Simply Won't Work'

Indeed, it seems almost as though Merkel, after 10 years in power, has finally found herself. She was Germany's first female chancellor, but she never focused much on women's issues for fear of alienating male voters. Likewise, she speaks little of her upbringing in East Germany because she believes that West Germans wouldn't understand. She was always hounded by the fear of being seen as a political freak. But that now appears to be over. "The people should know who their chancellor is," Merkel said on "Anne Will." Her tone was friendly and cheerful, like someone who finally had the courage to be herself.

A few hours prior to going on television, Merkel had met behind closed doors with conservative European parliamentarians in Strasbourg, where she didn't just defend her refugee policies, she justified them by pointing to her East German biography. "I lived behind a fence for long enough. You can maybe delay things for a couple of years," she said. "Even the fine East German wall eventually fell. So Europe will not be transformed into a fortress. It simply won't work."

People are now saying that Merkel has finally found her pet issue with the refugee crisis, but that isn't the whole story. Her issue has become global politics, with refugees representing but a subplot. On Tuesday, Merkel flew back to Berlin from India, where she had been for a two-day visit. Shortly after takeoff, she showed some of those on board a slip of paper depicting the route of their flight. It was a simple sketch, showing just the outlines of Europe and Asia, but for Merkel, it offered proof for how small the world has become.

She pointed to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, all countries that she sees as variables in the global balance of power -- factors that must be considered if she wants to slow, or even stop, the flow of migrants into Europe.

Merkel's calculation, somewhat simplified, looks like this: First, Turkey must be helped so that conditions for the 2 million Syrians currently sheltered in refugee camps are improved such that they lose their desire to head for Europe. Then, she intends to do what she can to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. One prerequisite for that project is for the United States to finally show some respect to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran to the negotiating table.

Sounds Nice

Could it work? On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Brussels for a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. One of Juncker's goals was that of starting the process of convincing Erdogan to do more to keep refugees in Turkey, but it quickly became clear that the Turkish president was not going to let Europe get off cheaply. Juncker indicated that the EU could reduce visa requirements for Turkish businesspeople traveling to Europe. The European Commission is currently drafting a proposal while experts are already in Turkey to hammer out the technical details. European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who was also part of the talks between Juncker and Erdogan, hinted that parliament could prioritize the law.

During the weekly meeting of commissioners, Juncker also made it clear that new chapters in Turkey's accession negotiations could be opened. Furthermore, Turkey is to receive a billion euros for the refugee camps, in addition to the billion euros that have already been promised.

There will be no solution without Turkey, but what motivation does Erdogan have for making Merkel's life easier. The chancellor has always been opposed to Turkish accession to the EU. Furthermore, there are parliamentary elections in Turkey on Nov. 1 and 68 percent of the Turkish population is in favor of stricter rules pertaining to refugees.

It sounds nice when Merkel says that fences aren't the solution. But such positions also make her susceptible to political blackmail. What if Erdogan isn't really interested in a solution? What if he is happy to see the camps on the Turkish-Syrian border empty out? What if he is okay with the situation in Syria worsening?

At the end of February, Merkel visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, and brought back with her a question that has remained with her ever since: What if the Middle Eastern conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites is the modern-day version of the Thirty Years' War, the battle between Catholics and Protestants that turned half of Europe into rubble in the 17th century?

To that question, Merkel has no answer. She has said that Germany will grant protection to those who need it. But if her plan to pacify the world doesn't work, it could be that so many people will come to Germany that Germans will no longer stand for it. Merkel is aware of that, which is why she doesn't want to become involved in a discussion about numbers. She doesn't want to name her own threshold of failure.

The Dramatic Situation

That, after all, is what Seehofer is waiting for. No other German state has been affected by the crisis to the degree Bavaria has, and Seehofer has the feeling that Merkel, comfortably ensconced in the Chancellery in Berlin, hasn't realized just how dramatic the situation has become. Seehofer, though, receives daily situation reports.

In mid-September, Christian Bernreiter, a municipal politician from the Bavarian town of Deggendorf and a member of Seehofer's CSU, asked for an appointment in the Chancellery, which he was then granted. On Sept. 28, Bernreiter traveled to Berlin with a couple of colleagues, where he told Merkel stories he had heard from his counterparts in Freilassing -- to the effect that stores in the town center were threatened with bankruptcy because crowds of refugees were blocking the streets. Merkel was also told of the situation in another small town where 115 properties had already been occupied by refugees. And she heard of the tiny village of Breitenberg, where 10,000 refugees came out of the forest within just two weeks. They had been sent through the woods by migrant smugglers in Austria, who brought them to the border in buses. Helpfully, the Austrians had posted signs in the forest in the colors of the German flag and arrows pointing in the right direction.

"The chancellor said that she understands and that the situation is dramatic," says Bernreiter. "And that she thinks about it day and night. But that she doesn't have a solution and can't promise us anything at the moment."

That drives Seehofer crazy. He sees the gymnasiums in Bavaria filling up  and wants to demonstrate that political leaders are doing something about it, but Merkel says that it makes no sense to talk about upper limits for refugees. In response, Seehofer is demanding that refugees be turned back at the Austrian border. That is his form of "self-defense."

The Bavarian governor is seeking to absorb the public's resentment. He believes that doing so is the only way to prevent right-wing parties from capitalizing on the situation. Merkel, though, thinks it makes no sense to adopt right-wing rhetoric, fearing that such a strategy would only benefit the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

But it's also about Seehofer himself. Not that long ago, it looked like the CSU leader was losing his grip on power in Bavaria. Many believed it was just a question of time before he was dethroned by party colleague Markus Söder. But now, Seehofer has thrown himself into battle with the most powerful opponent possible, which makes for a good show and has the side effect of pushing Söder back out of the spotlight.

Not Easy to Silence

It also helps that Seehofer has the quiet support of many Christian Democrats. That is especially true after Merkel recently shoved aside Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière after he came out in favor of an upper limit on the number of refugees Germany could accept. Merkel was not amused, and decided to place her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, in charge of coordinating Germany's response to the refugee crisis. De Maiziére's Interior Ministry is to be in charge of carrying out the plan, but beyond that, he no longer has a say.

Seehofer, though, isn't as easy to silence. He intends to continue attacking Merkel until she succumbs and says that Germany can no longer take more refugees. And he believes he has time on his side, assuming that, at some point, Germans will no longer accept the influx.

The Bavarian governor is aware, of course, that he can't go too far. Merkel's popularity ratings have fallen, but were Merkel to become too weak, it could harm Seehofer as well. Furthermore, the next Bavarian state elections come in 2018, one year after national elections in 2017. Should Merkel stumble, it is likely that support for Seehofer would be frail as well.

More importantly, though, Seehofer has transformed the refugee crisis into a power struggle between himself and the chancellor, which makes it difficult for both of them to emerge from the trenches they have dug themselves into. Seehofer's failure is the fact that he has given the impression that there is a simple solution to the refugee crisis. He has given hope to those who are fearful of being overwhelmed.

But Merkel has also maneuvered herself into a political dead-end. It would, of course, be great if she were successful in her battle against the causes of the mass exodus. But what happens if she fails? She has given the impression that Germany's willingness to absorb incomers is unlimited. But there is an upper limit to humanity, as terrible as that may sound. If Merkel isn't successful in reducing the flow, she'll either be swept out of office or she'll have to build the fences that she never wanted.

Thus far, her optimism has proven unshakable. Though at the very end of her appearance on "Anne Will" she said: "I have absolutely no doubt that we won't be successful." But she was probably just tired.

By Björn Hengst, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Conny Neumann and René Pfister

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