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

Marc-Steffen Unger

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.

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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."


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