Photo Gallery: Power Struggle in Berlin

Foto: Marc-Steffen Unger

Migration Headache Inside the Coalition Battle That Could Topple Merkel

With elections approaching in Bavaria, Angela Merkel's rival Horst Seehofer is seeking to pressure the chancellor into reversing her stance on migration. The conflict could fracture the coalition in Berlin and cost Merkel her job. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

It's always the same with these two. The conflict arrives slowly, almost imperceptibly. Earlier this month, just before German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to head off to the G-7 summit in Canada, she and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer were still sitting peacefully side by side on the government benches in the Bundestag. The chancellor, though, wanted to bring along Seehofer's "Master Plan" on migration policy to read on the plane.

"Can you remember to give me the paper," she whispered to Seehofer. "Angela, it's already with you at the Chancellery," he replied.

They made a plan to speak by phone over the weekend. Merkel only asked that they speak in the afternoon to give her a chance to sleep after her return from Canada on early Sunday morning. They finally ended up having their conversation at 1 p.m.

Seehofer is the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), and the two have a long history of bickering about immigration policy. Indeed, the conflict almost led to an open break ahead of German parliamentary elections last year. As such, when Merkel began elaborately praising the paper, Seehofer was immediately distrustful. He figured that some points of his plan would be certain to upset the chancellor.

Protection zones for refugees in transit countries where their asylum applications would be processed? Cutting benefits for refugees? Toughing up the deportation law?

Merkel said she could live with 62 of the 63 points in the paper. The only issue she had a problem with was the proposal to turn back refugees at the German borders. She said she wanted a European solution.

"Present your paper, but just leave this point out," she suggested.

Seehofer replied that this was out of the question, adding that he didn't see how the refugee problem could be resolved at a European level. He said he had been waiting for such a solution for years and that it was now time for a signal that things would change. The conversation became frostier, to the point that Seehofer threatened to present his paper to CSU leadership without the agreement of his sister party, the CDU.

It was likely at that moment that Merkel realized - if she hadn't already - just how far Seehofer and the CSU were willing to push the issue.

Shifting Balance of Power

The two are no strangers to conflict, of course. It was Merkel who in 2004 forced his resignation as deputy head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, then in opposition, after she pushed through a health policy he opposed. In 2015, it was Seehofer's turn: He was so critical of Merkel's refugee policy that the party alliance seemed close to collapse.

Now, it is once again about the refugee issue. This time, though, the balance of power between the two parties has shifted.  When the issue was discussed last Tuesday at a CDU/CSU parliamentary group meeting, not one conservative politician is reported to have defended the chancellor. It almost seemed as if the group was turning its back on Merkel. When the suggestion was made to just put it up for a vote, it was Seehofer who intervened. He didn't want to bring things to the brink - at least not yet.

Yet, if Merkel's days are numbered, who would be in a position to take her place? The CDU general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was previously governor of the small state of Saarland, is often mentioned. Then there is Jens Spahn, the young health minister, who has recently been showing off his friendship with the new U.S. ambassador to Berlin. Or Ursula von der Leyen, the defense minister, who is often in the headlines for negative news to do with Germany's military, the Bundeswehr.

It's an important question. After all, the world is currently in chaos. There has never before been a U.S. president who has questioned the very principles of the global order - the UN, NATO, the WTO - to such a degree. Yet, at this crucial time, the German government is being held hostage by a regional party that fears losing its majority in the Bavarian state elections in October. And it's glaringly obvious that Merkel does not have the strength to quell this rebellion once and for all.

It's as if an old wound has been reopened. During the federal election campaign last year, the CDU and CSU fought bitterly  over whether there should be a hard ceiling to the number of refugees allowed to enter the country. The dispute lasted right up until election day, playing into the hands of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which entered the Bundestag with 12.6 percent of the vote, while the conservatives had their worst result since 1949. The CSU came to the conclusion that it makes no sense to delay conflicts. And if need be, the Bavarians must assert their will against their sister party.

Original Sin

That is why the Bavarians now want to force Merkel to turn back refugees at the border. As a practical matter, we're only talking about a few thousand people. But it is of vital symbolic importance. The fact that Merkel did not order the borders closed in those late summer days of 2015 is regarded as the original sin of her entire refugee policy.

Yet the conflict goes even deeper. Many in both parties believe that Merkel has fundamentally led conservatives in the wrong direction by moving to the center and that doing so opened the door to the rise of the AfD. Senior CSU politician Alexander Dobrindt says that the conservatives must finally move back to the right of the democratic spectrum. And many agree, such as Edmund Stoiber, the former Bavarian governor, who never misses an opportunity to attack Merkel. Or Jens Spahn, who at a meeting of the CDU leadership on Thursday, openly opposed Merkel. And then there's Markus Söder, the CSU governor of Bavaria. All three would apparently love to see Merkel fall.

"We are in the finals for credibility," Söder said - not exactly the kind of thing one says when looking for compromise.

For both Merkel and Seehofer, the issue has now become one of political survival. Can Seehofer remain a minister in Merkel's government if he continues to openly question her authority? Can she continue to govern if she is unable to get the backing of her own party on such a key issue? The CSU has warned that Seehofer could order a halt to refugee entries as interior minister, even without the chancellor's agreement. That however would be the end of the current coalition between the CDU, CSU and center-left Social Democrats.

A look back at the genesis of the current crisis, it becomes clear that it was born out of weakness. It is a duel between Seehofer, who is driven by his party's fear of the AfD, and Merkel, whose refugee policy has failed in Europe.

Saturday, May 12, CSU Headquarters, Munich

The party leadership has gathered for a strategy conference to discuss the campaign ahead of state elections in October. There is a sense of crisis in the air. For weeks, polls have shown that the CSU is in danger of not receiving an absolute majority in the state in part because the AfD has remained solid at around 12 percent support in Bavaria. Meeting participants are unanimous in their conviction that a recent bribery scandal surrounding the Bremen branch of Federal Office for Immigration and Refugees (BAMF) has pushed refugees back onto the political agenda. And they are aware of the party's own internal analysis which found that Seehofer's concessions on the refugee issue were to blame for the CSU's poor showing in the federal election last September.

As party leaders consider how to approach the growing debate, Seehofer suggests something that his officials have been considering ever since he took over the Interior Ministry: turning back asylum seekers at the border if they have already registered in another country.

During coalition negotiations, the CSU didn't press the issue because they prioritized a different policy: that of setting up so-called anchor centers where asylum seekers could be housed and then quickly accepted or deported. Now, though, in the May 12 meeting of CSU leaders, Seehofer suggests that if the anchor-center plan doesn't receive sufficient support and the number of refugees on the Turkish-Greek border begins to rise again, it will become necessary to consider turning migrants back at the border. Seehofer, of course, knows what Merkel thinks of the idea. At a cabinet meeting the previous month, he already suggested turning back certain people at the border, but the chancellor rejected the idea, saying she didn't want Germany to act unilaterally in Europe. Six days later, mass-circulation tabloid Bild features an interview with Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, who says: "If anchor centers don't work, then people will have to be turned back at the border." There is now no going back for Seehofer.

Tuesday, June 5, Luxembourg

The agenda for the meeting of the EU interior ministers includes a massive project that has been under discussion for three years with no resolution: Merkel's proposal to reform the EU asylum system, which envisions taking in refugees at the bloc's external borders and processing their applications there before assigning them to EU member states according to a quota system. The meeting is the last opportunity to find a breakthrough before the EU summit at the end of June, which aims to take up the issue. Bulgaria, currently holder of the EU's rotating Council presidency, has come up with a compromise plan, but it quickly becomes clear that it has no chance of being accepted.

The meeting really had no chance from the start, with important protagonists opting not to attend. Seehofer has sent his parliamentary secretary Stephan Mayer, while his Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega, has sent the Italian ambassador to the EU along with orders to reject any compromise deal. Italy, Salvini said the weekend before the meeting, would no longer be the "refugee camp of Europe."

Mayer too seeks to lower expectations. He is, after all, representing Seehofer's point of view and not Merkel's. Mayer says there are "substantial deficiencies" in the proposal from the European Council presidency and that "thoroughness must come before speed." As if there hadn't already been countless meetings of ambassadors, ministers and EU officials called to debate the issue.

A number of countries have long rejected Merkel's quota solution out of hand because they don't want to take in any refugees at all. Belgian representative Theo Francken, of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance party, tweets: "The Dublin reform is dead. There is totally no consensus."

Even Merkel has realized by now that her refugee policy has been a failure in Europe. "I do not believe that the distribution of quotas by majority vote has led to a settlement," she says one day later after a meeting of conservative European parliamentarians in Munich. Instead, she continues, the EU has to "develop a system of flexible solidarity."

Turning Up the Heat on Merkel

Yet this wording "flexible solidarity," is one used constantly by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Merkel's archenemy in the refugee crisis. To Hungary, "flexible solidarity" means that EU countries can decide if they want to take in more asylum seekers, send more police to the EU's border protection agency Frontex, or, as Orbán decided to do, build a fence.

Friday, June 8, Quedlinburg

At a meeting of German state interior ministers, Seehofer tries to persuade the gathering of the necessity of setting up anchor centers. The CSU leader is committed to the idea but has realized in recent days that he is largely isolated on the issue. Only Bavaria and Saxony are in favor of taking part in a pilot project, while the other states turn him down. "Have fun trying to find suitable locations," says Lower Saxony Interior Minister Boris Pistorius, a member of the SPD. It becomes clear to Seehofer that the issue isn't likely to bring his party much support in the Bavarian state election campaign.

Sunday, June 10, Berlin

Merkel appears on one of the premier political talk shows on German television. She is actually there to discuss her foreign policy, but at the end of the interview, she is asked if she can agree with Seehofer's suggestion to turn back refugees at Germany's border. Merkel says that she favors a European solution and adds that Hungary, with its external border with Serbia, was already doing the work "to a certain extent."

It becomes clear that Merkel has now largely adopted a similar hardline approach to refugees as Orbán. But in contrast to Seehofer, Merkel would like to see the policy executed on the EU's external borders, not in Germany.

Monday, June 11, Chancellery

Merkel and Seehofer speak again on the telephone but don't get any closer to an agreement. That afternoon, Bild reports that the presentation of the master plan, scheduled for the next day, has been cancelled due to their continued differences. That evening, during a meeting of conservative parliamentarians, conservative floor leader Volker Kauder and CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer realize that many leading CDU members are on the CSU's side. Lawmaker Christian von Stetten even asks for a vote among conservative parliamentarians. At meetings of the legislators from the states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, a clear majority also backs Seehofer.

Tuesday, June 12, Reichstag, Berlin

The atmosphere in front of the meeting room of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group is tense. The media has been reporting non-stop about the murder of Susanna Feldman, who was allegedly killed by a failed asylum seeker from Iraq. Lawmakers find themselves reminded of the uproar following the huge number of sexual assaults that took place in Cologne on New Year's Eve two-and-a-half years ago. Many on the right wing of the political spectrum are blaming Merkel and her refugee policies for the crimes.

The legislators are standing in groups and watching as Merkel, Kauder, Seehofer and Dobrindt huddle together. They agree not to focus on their differences during the parliamentary group meeting, with Kauder ultimately telling the group that a consensus will be found in the coming days.

But if Kauder thinks that is the end of it, he is mistaken. Immediately, some of the legislators present raise their arms to speak. The first is Paul Ziemiak, head of the conservative youth wing. He says that he heard on the radio that morning that the politicians have finally reached agreement. "Unfortunately, it was about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un," he says sarcastically. Then, more and more politicians take the microphone, including well-known critics of Merkel's refugee policies like the CSU legislator Alois Rainer. He asks Seehofer not to accept any lazy compromises. In an emotional speech, Rainer says Seehofer has already walked through fire for Merkel before and he won't survive if he tries to do the same again.

Of far greater concern for Merkel, however, is that even loyalists like Elisabeth Motschmann, a legislator from Bremen, oppose the chancellor. She says that in Bremen, the situation has spun out of control. "We need a solution right now." There is only one issue being discussed in the constituencies, von Stetten says, and something has to be done.

As the meeting progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that no one is defending the chancellor, not even her two allies Economics Minister Peter Altmaier and CDU General Secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer. Seehofer finally speaks up toward the end of the debate to prevent it escalating out of control. He once again mentions his masterplan and then turns to Rainer and says: "Dear Alois, you know what I am thinking, but I must now bring this discussion to a close."

Then Merkel speaks. Her supporters are shocked by how bitter she seems. She explains how she doesn't want to see a unilateral, German solution but a European one. And then her frustration bursts out of her: She negotiated the Turkey deal, she says. She pushed through Operation Sophia against human traffickers in the Mediterranean. And she managed to significantly reduce the refugee numbers. For all that, she says, she hasn't received a single word of thanks.

At this moment, many legislators feel that the connection between the chancellor and her parliamentary party has been damaged, perhaps irreparably.

Tuesday, June 12, Restaurant Cordobar, Berlin

The CDU politicians Jens Spahn and Paul Ziemiak are sitting in a wine bar in central Berlin, not far from trendy Hackescher Markt square. They have deliberately chosen a table by the window so that they can be easily photographed. They have a prominent guest with them: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Two days later, Bild publishes a photograph of the Cordobar get-together. For months, the paper has been attacking Merkel over her refugee policy. But if the editors were hoping to produce a symbol of growing resistance to Merkel, somehow the opposite happened. Even those in the CDU who are opposed to Merkel's policies have no desire to be led by that particular trio.

Wednesday, June 13, Chancellery

Merkel receives Seehofer in her office along with Bavarian Governor Söder and the CDU governor of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, both of whom face elections in October. It is an attempt to finally put the dispute to bed. Merkel offers Seehofer the compromise of allowing the rejection of those asylum seekers at the border whose applications for asylum have already been rejected once by German authorities. Seehofer considers the offer a joke. How can you possibly sell the rejection of already rejected asylum seekers as a success on the campaign trail? Söder says: "If we don't finally understand that for democracy in Germany, it is five minutes to midnight, then things will get difficult."

Bouffier appeals to the CSU to avoid escalating the conflict. "We have to stick together. The situation at the border is not all that dramatic at the moment." Söder retorts: "Volker, how many kilometers of border does your state have?"

Seehofer offers to only implement the policy of rejecting asylum seekers if no solution is found at the EU migration summit at the end of June. Merkel demurs, saying she can't allow her negotiating position to be limited to that extent.

Just how toxic relations between Germany's two conservative parties has become can be seen in their differing interpretations of the meeting. CDU members say they cannot allow their party to be blackmailed by the CSU. Seehofer and his allies, meanwhile, believe that Merkel is just trying to play for time and lead on the CSU. "Merkel doesn't want asylum-seeker rejections at the border. That's all there is to it," one source says.

Thursday, June 14, Reichstag

Merkel calls a meeting of CDU lawmakers and the atmosphere is at least as tense as it was two days earlier. This time, though, the chancellor is better prepared. In a morning conference call, she ensured the backing of party leaders and there is broad agreement. Only two members of the leadership speak out against her: Spahn and Saxon Governor Michael Kretschmer, who says that the mood on the streets is dark indeed. If Seehofer is blocked, "it is damaging to us all," he says.

In the meeting, Merkel takes the floor immediately following Kauder's opening remarks. "The situation is serious, everyone knows that," she says. Then she sets out her position: no unilateral moves from Germany. She hopes to work toward a solution at the EU summit in two weeks. "I know that two weeks are not a lot, but I am going to put myself in this corset because I know that we are pressed for time."

She wins over most legislators with the argument that the CSU doesn't even want to give her the two weeks. Yet just the night before, Seehofer offered to delay implementing a policy of rejecting refugees until after the summit. When he hears about Merkel's comments, he is outraged.

The first legislator to speak after Merkel's address is Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the Bundestag, whose word carries weight with party conservatives. Merkel, he says, has his complete support on the search for a European solution. He says the party is at an historic crossroads and that it is not time to play with fire and jeopardize European stability. He also says he is prepared to speak with CSU lawmakers.

One after another, CDU legislators criticize the CSU's behavior. Karin Maag, the party's health policy spokesperson, says: "I don't understand why we have to argue for four hours about a masterplan that no one has read. I would like to finally read this plan."

Following the meeting, there are strong words exchanged between CDU and CSU politicians. Georg Nüsslein of the CSU meets his CDU colleague Gunter Krichbaum at the Bundestag coffee bar and the issue of Merkel immediately comes up. "She doesn't care about the German people, she doesn't care about the legislators. And you are backing her. You are all crazy."

A visibly annoyed Krichbaum responds: "You're making it a little easy on yourselves."

In a separate meeting of the CSU parliamentary group, Söder sets the tone right away. "We have to do it now," he says. Seehofer then reiterates his position, adding that it isn't about power, it's about policy. A few chuckles can be heard in response.

One after the other, almost all of the CSU legislators speak up in support of Seehofer, with just a few warning him against breaking with the CDU. Volker Ullrich, a legal expert from Augsburg, says: "This concerns the long-term peace between the CSU and the CDU. It is damaging to our image when we fight amongst ourselves."

Seehofer rejects a suggestion to have CSU leadership pass the masterplan that Friday in a special session, saying he wants to ensure that all members of the party's leadership can attend. In reality, though, he is playing for time. Unlike Söder, he isn't interested in seeing Merkel fall.

Monday, June 18, Munich

Seehofer pulls back from the brink. At a press conference in Munich, he says he is giving Merkel two weeks to work out a European solution and adds that he and the chancellor agree on "62-and-a-half" of the 63 points in his masterplan.

While saying he would support the chancellor's efforts to make deals with EU partners, he insists that the German government does not yet "have the issue of migration under control" and that a lot of work still needs to be done.

In a separate press conference in Berlin, Merkel says that the two parties share the common goals of reducing immigration and better organizing migration into Germany, and that they have agreed to work together. Still, if there is no European deal in two weeks, the conflict promises to heat up again instantly.

It is not without irony, of course, that Merkel and Seehofer, who have fought so many power struggles over the years, now find themselves on the brink of mutual destruction. If Merkel does fall over this issue, Seehofer would lose his ministerial job and the CSU would be faced with the question of whether it might not be better to have a fresh start without him.

Seehofer only managed to hold on to the CSU leadership by moving to Berlin after losing the Bavarian power struggle to Markus Söder, who took over from him as governor. There's little doubt within the party that Söder would prefer not to share power. And that's another reason why he is pushing for confrontation with Merkel. "We can't keep doing things by half measures when it comes to immigration," he said last Thursday.

The CSU is obsessed with its fear of the AfD, whose power is almost exclusively derived from fury with Merkel. Merkel made several appearances in Bavaria during last year's federal election campaign, but the last one with Seehofer on Munich's central square was a disaster as both were booed by an angry crowd. The CSU has drawn its own conclusions and in the current election campaign in Bavaria, Merkel isn't scheduled to make an appearance.

Söder, along with Dobrindt, Spahn and Christian Lindner, the leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, is part of the generation of politicians already planning for life after Merkel. They are all convinced that there must be clearer demarcation between political camps and that their careers can only really get started once Merkel has left the Chancellery.

Lindner, for one, is doing all he can to exacerbate the conflict between the two conservative parties. The FDP parliamentary group presented a motion to hold a vote in parliament to see who supported Seehofer's asylum plan. The idea was to clearly show which conservatives backed Merkel and which did not.

And the question that is now being asked with greater urgency than ever before is whether or not Merkel made the right decision in the fall of 2016 when she decided to run again as chancellor. Back then, Trump had just been elected U.S. president and Europe was deeply divided. Merkel decided to run again because she felt that it would be irresponsible to step down at such a time of crisis.

On March 21, when she gave her first government statement after being sworn in after months of tortuous coalition negotiations, Merkel said that she wanted to overcome the division in Germany. During the election campaign she had seen just how much hatred was felt toward her. Sometimes one could barely hear her on the election stump, so loud was the whistling and chanting of her detractors. The AfD rode that anger to 92 seats in parliament.

"At the end of this legislative period, I would like the result to look as follows: that our society has become more humane, that divisions and polarization have be reduced, and perhaps even overcome, and that a new cohesion has grown," Merkel said in her speech, which she mostly wrote herself. But now the question is: Can Merkel really achieve all that?

After all, she herself seems to have become the source of that very polarization she seeks to overcome.

By Melanie Amann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter

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