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07/06/2018 06:00 PM

With Friends Like These ...

Inside the Battle that Almost Brought Down Merkel

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From the outside, the internecine battle between Germany's two conservative parties looked rather absurd. From the inside, though, it became clear it was all about one man's desire to finally get revenge on Angela Merkel.

At first glance, it is but a trifle, a bit of marginalia in the ludicrous conflict that almost brought down the German government. On Monday, after the battle had finally come to an end following several tortuous weeks, after a compromise had finally been found between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), it was time for the chancellor and CSU head Horst Seehofer to jointly address the press.

Outside of CDU headquarters in Berlin, reporters were waiting in the gentle evening light for the conclusion of the crisis summit, but the leaders of the two "sister parties" couldn't even agree on the wording of a joint statement.

"As a result of this agreement, I am going to tell the press that I will remain interior minister," Seehofer said. He discussed with Merkel his view that the general secretaries from the CDU and CSU should be the ones to inform the gathered reporters about the details of their peace deal. And then he headed down to the foyer. Without Merkel. Without the woman with whom he needs at least a modicum of trust if their governing partnership is to work.

Perhaps it made sense. It may even have been the only bit of honesty seen in Berlin during these crazy days of dispute. How, after all, should the two find their way back to each other after the depth of their feud? Seehofer is obsessed with Angela Merkel, and he won't back down until she is no longer there. Indeed, it might have been better were both of them to step down and clear the way for a new political era. The current partnership between the CSU and CDU, in any case, isn't likely to work for as long as Merkel and Seehofer have to find agreement on all the important issues. It isn't likely to work for as long as the two are chained together like an unhappy married couple.

Merkel has retained the ability to keep her cool, concealing her fury behind her political authority - such as when, in her first speech in parliament following her most recent reelection, she indirectly admonished Seehofer for his assertion that Islam does not belong to Germany. Seehofer sat there on the cabinet benches looking like a sheepish schoolboy.

He's still furious about it. In his ministry office just a couple of days ago, he angrily said: "And then I was reprimanded by her in the Bundestag." He has a direct view of the Chancellery from the windows of his office - he sees it when he arrives in the morning and he sees it before he heads home in the evening. That could very well be part of the problem.

Seehofer is like an onion: You have to have a bit of patience, but once you peel your way to the center, you'll find Merkel, the woman who has inflicted so many injuries on him and who he has never been able to defeat. Sooner or later, it's always Merkel with him. And he can't help it, it's a mixture of admiration and fear. He is intimately familiar with her instinct for power, which so many before him have underestimated and who thus lie "in the cemetery behind the Chancellery," as Seehofer says. He doesn't want to end up there himself.

The rivalry between the two sister parties has long been one of the standing rituals in German politics. One of the most impressive examples is the speech held by then-CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss in November 1976, when he heaped scorn on the leader of the CDU at the time, a man named Helmut Kohl. "He is completely incapable, he lacks the necessary character, intellectual and political qualifications to be chancellor. He lacks everything."

Yet despite frequently being at loggerheads, Kohl and Strauss ultimately pursued the same brand of conservatism. Merkel and Seehofer, by contrast, aren't just divided by a long history of indignities inflicted on each other - a history which has made it almost impossible for the pair to hold open, face-to-face discussions - but they also pursue two completely different political strategies. That is what has made the situation so difficult.

The CSU sees Merkel's refugee policies as the apex of an aberration which has led conservative voters to turn away from the CDU/CSU, thus contributing to the growth of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The CSU would like to reverse this mistake, which is what has made the conflict with Merkel so bitter. It is really no longer about refugee policy as such, rather it is about declaring Merkel's decision in 2015 to not close the border to the refugees coming in via the Balkan Route as a fundamental mistake. Given that background, it is obvious why it has been so difficult to find common ground. Indeed, if you take a closer look at the recent days of chaos in Berlin, it becomes clear that doing so is a virtual impossibility.

Saturday, June 30
Chancellery

Seehofer climbs into his sedan for the five-hour drive from Bavaria to Berlin. The interior minister is to meet face-to-face with Merkel for a final attempt at solving the asylum conflict that has been raging for weeks and which is threatening to destroy the CDU-CSU partnership. Both know just how much is at stake. Both have called meetings on Sunday of the leadership committees of their respective parties. If the two are unable to find a solution today, a dangerous escalation will become unavoidable.

Merkel informs Seehofer of the results of the European Union summit from which she returned on Friday. At the Brussels summit, EU leaders reached an agreement on measures that had previously seemed impossible: controlled centers, for example, where refugees are to wait for their asylum applications to be approved or denied. And "disembarkation platforms," from which migrants who made their way across the Mediterranean can be shipped back to North Africa.

"You could say that a lot was achieved due to pressure from the CSU," Merkel tells Seehofer. But he doesn't want to back away from his plan to reject migrants at Germany's border. Conservative circles see Merkel's unwillingness to do so back in summer 2015 as the source of all evil. Seehofer does make a compromise proposal - that not all registered refugees would be rejected, just those who already have applied for asylum in a different EU member state. But Merkel doesn't accept it. She already agreed to the upper limit that Seehofer had been demanding, and she had also thanked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his contributions to blocking migration to Europe. She isn't in the mood to grant Seehofer another triumph.

But what should happen now?

On this evening, the two don't address the most important question, one which is crucial for the survival of their government: Will the chancellor fire her interior minister if he fails to fall into line? Seehofer later says that he avoided the question intentionally. "That would have made it look like I was groveling for my position."

Sunday, July 1
CSU Headquarters in Munich

Before the meeting of CSU leaders begins, Seehofer meets with a couple of his closest confidants in his office. His longtime spokesperson and office manager Jürgen Fischer is there, as are senior party officials Hans Michael Strepp, Markus Blume, Daniela Ludwig and, later, Alexander Dobrindt. The group discusses the situation, but nobody has an idea for solving it. Seehofer says he will be making a personal statement at the end of the meeting, but nobody thinks much of it. Seehofer, though, knows that he will be resigning from all of his political offices in a couple of hours. His intentions are only known to his wife Karin. "In a couple of days, it could all be over," he has told her.

At 3 p.m., the CSU leadership committee meeting begins, with Seehofer speaking for an hour about his view of the situation. He says the measures agreed to at the EU summit are not "sufficiently effective" to withdraw his demand that refugees be turned away at the German border. Experts in the Interior Ministry, he says, have even warned that the EU measures could lead to more rather than fewer migrants. The CSU, he says, cannot allow itself to be duped. Seehofer then asks for an "open and honest discussion," and 50 meeting participants immediately register their desire to speak.

Initially, only Seehofer supporters take the floor, encouraging him to remain steadfast. Several CSU members of the federal parliament argue in favor of a vote among CSU lawmakers, a group which doesn't always support Seehofer's style, but do support his positions. Only toward the end of the debate do critics of Seehofer's confrontational strategy take the floor. Former party head Erwin Huber issues a reminder of the responsibility the CSU bears while Development Minister Gerd Müller warns that if things go badly, the CSU could end up being merely a meaningless regional party. Deputy party head Manfred Weber praises Merkel's accomplishments on the European stage.

Seehofer snaps back at those seeking compromise with unusual bitterness. "What kind of a minister are you," he says to Müller. To Weber, he blusters: "You are my deputy! You owe me loyalty!" Seehofer loses his temper and says his critics are only helping Merkel. "She'll learn all about what is said here, and when she hears it, she won't back down at all." Apparently, he adds, some of those present are too dumb to realize it.

Seehofer ends his extended closing statement by saying there are only three options. The CSU could back down, which would result in irreparable harm to its credibility. He recalls the 2008 election campaign when then-party head Huber was unable to push through a key party demand against Merkel's opposition and the party's approval ratings in Bavaria collapsed as a result. Seehofer also speaks about the mistakes made in 2015 when the party wasn't decisive enough in standing up to Merkel on the refugee issue.

There is also, of course, the possibility of remaining stubborn, Seehofer says. That strategy, however, would require the entire party to be united behind him, which isn't the case, the CSU head says. Plus, he adds, he isn't willing to be thrown out by Merkel.

That is why, he says, he has decided to pursue a third option. He tells the gathered CSU leaders that he plans on resigning from all his political offices by next Wednesday. He then shoves the microphone to Dobrindt and says, "Alexander, now it's your turn."

Nobody in the hall was prepared for his announcement. "You can't do that!" former CSU head Edmund Stoiber calls out. Dobrindt tries to stall for time. "I can't accept that," he says, and suspends the meeting.

A small group of CSU officials assembles in a room on the first floor to try to get Seehofer to change his mind. Dobrindt, Bavarian Governor Markus Söder and Stoiber are all there, as is Transportation Minister Andreas Scheuer and state parliamentarian Stefan Müller.

Dobrindt is the first to take the floor. He has been at the center of the conflict from the very beginning and doesn't want to allow Seehofer to simply turn tail. "Horst, there are other possibilities," he says. As interior minister, he could simply order that refugees be turned away at the border.

Stoiber agrees. It is an extremely difficult situation for the CSU, he says. The party was granted the Interior Ministry, he says, and now has the opportunity to implement its own course. If the interior minister were now, right in the middle of the state election campaign, to resign, it would make it clear to everyone: "The CSU can't assert itself. It would be the admission of failure," Stoiber says. He also expresses his support for ratcheting up the conflict with Merkel. "We'll simply impose the policy and then it is up to the chancellor to demonstrate that she will, in fact, fire you."

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
German Parliament

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
CDU Headquarters

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.

Easily Fooled?

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."

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