With Friends Like These ... Inside the Battle that Almost Brought Down Merkel
Part 2: A Tentative (Useless?) Compromise
But Seehofer refuses to seriously consider this option. "While I respect the courage, you can't really ask me to do that," he says. Resignation would be more honorable, he insists, both for himself and for the party.
Everyone now knows that Seehofer is afraid of the ignominy of being defeated by Merkel. He already resigned once because of her: Back in 2004, he stepped down as deputy conservative floor leader after he lost out in a conflict on healthcare reform. In hindsight, it seems like a minor episode, but it is still painful to Seehofer. Ultimately, though, the others in the room manage to convince Seehofer to give it one last try. And the CSU leader agrees to step back from the brink.
It is a typical Seehofer move, a man who has so often seemed at the end of his political career only to rise up from his political grave. There is a lot to indicate that Seehofer's offer to resign was merely a tactical move. Had he really meant it, he could have stepped down from all his political offices, effective immediately. "But they are the most valuable things he has," a long-time confidant says.
The group surrounding Seehofer decides to head to Berlin on Monday to meet with Merkel, and the members of the delegation are quickly decided upon. No Seehofer critic is to be among them, that is the most important thing. But then someone realizes that the group is made up exclusively of men. Even the CSU has by now realized that that could turn into a problem. So they decide to take along Dorothee Bär, the federal government's commissioner for digital issues.
Seehofer makes his way back down to the hall and announces that he will be remaining in office after all - and acts as though he is doing the party a huge favor. "That is a concession from me, otherwise it would have been over today."
Sunday, July 1
CDU Headquarters in Berlin
As the CSU is meeting in Munich, CDU leaders gather in Berlin. The mood is "horrendous," says one participant. The two sister parties have completely contradictory views of the political situation, just as if they were in adversarial political camps.
Merkel explains why she believes the summit resolutions from Brussels are "more than sufficiently effective" when compared to Seehofer's plan. Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier complains about the exorbitant egoism of the CSU. "Nobody there seems to realize that we also have an election to win," he complains, referring to Hesse state elections scheduled for late October.
A large majority of the CDU leaders present throw their support behind Merkel's course. The afternoon turns to evening, but nobody knows what exactly the CSU is discussing in Bavaria. CDU leaders send numerous text messages to their Bavarian political allies to try to find out:
"What are you doing down there?" "What is the situation?"
Merkel only wants to speak to the press after Seehofer does, but his appearance keeps getting delayed, first from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and then again, this time indefinitely. All CDU leaders are ordered to stay until it is known what the CSU has decided - so the gathered party officials watch the Denmark-Croatia World Cup match, their mobile phones close by.
Finally, Merkel receives a phone call from Alexander Dobrindt. He tells her of the most recent developments and they agree to a meeting of 16 people the next day at CDU headquarters in Berlin. Nobody thinks it makes much sense for the two adversarial party heads to meet again one-on-one. Such a meeting would likely be counterproductive, something Merkel and Dobrindt agree on for a change.
Monday, July 2
CDU Headquarters in Berlin
At midday, Merkel discusses the situation with confidants and the mood is much lighter than it was the day before. With Seehofer having stepped back from resignation, it is clear to those present that the CSU head isn't prepared to sacrifice his office, a clear sign of weakness. It appears that a compromise, particularly one in which the CSU will have to make the greatest concessions, is within reach.
As Merkel is speaking, a push notification pops up on her phone. She learns that Seehofer, on the drive to Berlin, telephoned with a reporter from the influential Süddeutsche Zeitung and made a rather odd statement. "I will not allow myself to be fired by a chancellor who is only chancellor because of me." He told the reporter that he is in an unimaginable position. "The person who I helped into the saddle is throwing me out."
The gathered CDU leaders are stunned. But they decide to ignore Seehofer's utterances. Nobody wants to give the comments the dignity of a reply.
Monday, July 2
Merkel and Seehofer meet in the office of Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble - a neutral site, so to speak. Schäuble is a key figure in the battle between the sister parties and never conclusively takes sides. His role has been that of consistently reminding both sides to behave themselves, but Merkel opponents in particular have hopes that if the chancellor falls, he would agree to become interim chancellor. Indeed Jens Spahn, the ambitious young health minister and Merkel adversary, has even begun asking around in the SPD if the party would support Schäuble as chancellor.
Whether Schäuble himself would be willing is difficult to say. CSU officials say that the 75-year-old believes he is too old, but the Merkel camp believes that anything is possible.
But none of that is discussed in the meeting between Seehofer and Merkel in Schäuble's office, with Schäuble urging the two sides to find common ground. Otherwise, he warns, there is a danger that the two parties will go their separate ways or that conservatives in parliament will make a decision on their own. The latter warning is directed at Merkel. Her Achilles' Heel is the conservative group in parliament.
Indeed, that same day, a sub-group of conservative parliamentarians warned that absent a compromise on Monday, it would seek a vote among all conservative lawmakers in federal parliament. With several CDU parliamentarians taking the side of the CSU in the migration debate, such a vote could spell the end of Merkel's tenure as German chancellor.
But Merkel doesn't show up to Schäuble's office empty handed. CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has prepared a possible solution. The previous week, she held a long discussion with Armin Schuster, valued by both the CSU and CDU for his expertise on migration issues. More importantly, he is also the inventor of the transit centers, where migrants are to be kept until it is determined who is responsible for their asylum applications.
Monday, July 2
The CSU negotiators walk into the CDU headquarters as if they are negotiating a ceasefire, their faces serious, their pace brisk. CDU General Secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer has instructed her troops not to be provoked by Seehofer but also not to confront him with his attacks on Merkel either. The atmosphere is tense enough already.
During the talks Seehofer repeatedly loses his cool. When Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, says that Belgians, Germans and Dutch people commute in and out of his state every day and so he won't close the borders there, Seehofer snarls: "That is not constructive! You simply won't budge!"
It is Merkel's old enemy Stoiber who calms him down again and again. The honorary president of the CSU is the real head of the negotiating team, the CDU people conclude. They quickly agree on transit centers, but the CSU side still insists on Germany turning back asylum seekers. "That is not what I understand by open borders and an open Europe," Merkel counters.
She suggests leaving the point open. "Then we will note that we have no consensus on this question," she says. The CSU rejects the proposal. "That was the strategy for the federal election campaign and it didn't work," says Dobrindt. Back then, the two parties had been unable to agree on establishing an upper limit on the number of migrants allowed to enter Germany each year.
Finally, Dobrindt and CSU General Secretary Blume jot down three points that they present as the outlines of a compromise. The CDU withdraws to the library to consult. "Now the decision will be made as to whether a political solution is truly desired," Seehofer says.
A rapid exchange of notes begins. Kramp-Karrenbauer comes with the CDU suggestions for amendments and returns with CSU amendments. In the end, the CDU pushes through two important changes: There will be administrative agreements with the countries affected by the returns. And Merkel insists on an "accord" rather than just an "agreement" with Austria, which places responsibility for negotiating the deal on the shoulders of Interior Minister Seehofer. Which means that Seehofer, of all people, will have to achieve the miracle that Merkel was unable to: that of persuading the right-wing government in Vienna to take refugees back from Germany.
When the deal is finally reached, Seehofer appears before the CDU headquarters at dusk and says: "This clear agreement allows me to continue in my office as minister for the interior, construction and heimat." Then he gets into his government sedan and drives to the meeting of coalition leaders at the Chancellery. Staff say they have never seen him look so relieved. He is totally relaxed, full of joy and pride at being able to stay on. It's a "magical moment" for Seehofer, they say.
He has been able to save his job. But for how long? And at what price? Seehofer has negotiated a compromise that won't hold in practice, it's like a big political soap bubble. It will take months to check which country is responsible for each individual migrant and only three of the border crossings along the German-Austrian border will be controlled. Furthermore, Austria and Italy will reject any agreement intended to form the basis of an asylum compromise. Seehofer's people openly admit that it's only about political symbolism. "Merkel had her selfies, now we need pictures of refugees being put on buses."
But are voters really that easily fooled?
In the CSU group in Bavarian state parliament, no one expects the asylum dispute to help them in the election in October. It's described here as a "farce." Günther Beckstein, the former governor of Bavaria, is open about his discontent. "I don't understand why a compromise couldn't have been found two weeks ago." Seehofer replaced Beckstein as governor in 2008 after a disastrous election result of 43.4 percent. Currently the CSU is polling well below that level. "The confrontation between Merkel and Seehofer has thoroughly damaged the party," Beckstein argues.
Even more than a strong showing from the AfD, the CSU is concerned that many Bavarians simply won't vote at all. "The connection with the party in the non-political sphere, the church and associations, is dwindling," says Peter Hausmann. He was once the government spokesman under Helmut Kohl and editor of the party newspaper, the Bayernkurier. He speaks of an "embarrassing political posse, that bore and disturb voters." Horst Seehofer, he says, has "completely failed. The dispute is more damaging than helpful to the CSU."
Bavarian governor Söder hopes to profit from Seehofer's missteps. If the election goes badly in October, then there'll be need for a scapegoat, and it won't be Söder if he can help it. And yet it was Söder who whipped up the fight with the CDU in the first place with his interview in the tabloid Bild. But he doesn't want to hear about that any more. It is necessary "to restore stability and calm. The form and style of the relationship between the CDU and CSU should be improved," says Söder.
His schedule for the next few days is pretty unspectacular; there is no trace of the recent drama. A ground-breaking ceremony for a new vocational school in Weilheim, the opening of an exhibition in Nuremberg. On Sunday, he has a speech at the regional summer party for the Oberland folk club.
Seehofer has already made his first reversal. At a meeting with Austrian government leaders, he agreed that Austria should take back only those refugees intercepted in Germany that were first registered there. It is a concession that tears up an important part of the compromise with the CDU.
And just a single phone call with Seehofer suffices to make it clear that this is not the end of the story. What happens if the deal with the CDU doesn't work in practice?
"Then we would have to return to the idea of sending people back directly at the border," the interior minister says. "Then it would start all over again."
- Part 1: Inside the Battle that Almost Brought Down Merkel
- Part 2: A Tentative (Useless?) Compromise