With Friends Like These ... Inside the Battle that Almost Brought Down Merkel
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
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."
- Part 1: Inside the Battle that Almost Brought Down Merkel
- Part 2: A Tentative (Useless?) Compromise