Merkel and Bavarian allies thrash out migration compromise

Deal on fast-track camps for asylum seekers on Germany border saves government alliance

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Bavarian allies have agreed fast-track camps for asylum seekers on Germany’s border with Austria to reduce asylum seeker numbers and salvage their political alliance in Berlin.

The agreement for closed asylum centres came during a final meeting on Monday evening to prevent Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) implementing controls on German borders against Dr Merkel’s wishes.

“We agreed after very intense negotiations,” said Horst Seehofer, CSU leader and federal interior minister in Berlin. “This is a clear agrement to prevent illegal immigration in future on the German-Austrian border.”

The three-week disagreement between the CSU and Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) escalated late on Sunday evening when Mr Seehofer offered his resignation. On Monday evening he indicated he would stay on in his job, saying it “was worthwhile fighting for one’s convictions”.


Dr Merkel welcomed the deal as a “good compromise”.

On Monday afternoon she told a joint CDU/CSU parliamentary party she was anxious to hold together their 69 year-old alliance saying: “There is a great wish to solve this.”

Both centre-right leaders said the deal had avoided a rupture of their parliamentary alliance, and the Bavarians’ departure from government, which would leave Dr Merkel short of a Bundestag majority.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the third party in Dr Merkel’s coalition, signalled it could back transit zone camps – an idea it ruled out in 2015.

Last month Mr Seehofer presented a 63-point “migration masterplan” to combat illegal immigration but one point fell foul of the chancellor: proposals to refuse entry to migrants already refused asylum or registered elsewhere in the EU.

‘Because of me’

As the standoff escalated on Monday afternoon, he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily: "I won't allow myself be fired by a chancellor who's only chancellor because of me."

His remark was an allusion to last year’s federal election, in which stronger CSU results helped salvage the CDU’s worst postwar election result.

Mr Seehofer’s chief CSU rival, Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier and until now a hardline force in the migrant row with the CDU, struck a remarkably conciliatory tone by comparison.

There was, he said, “no question” of the Bavarians endangering their parliamentary partnership or Germany’s grand coalition.

“Cancelling a parliamentary party alliance is not the right path,” said Mr Söder. “We can achieve a lot in government but not from outside.”

While the CSU attacks have rallied CDU MPs to her support, Dr Merkel struggled in recent days to reconcile her insistence on European agreement on migration issues with CSU demands for unilateral border checks.

Last week the CSU put her under the gun to produce “equivalent” EU proposals to border closures. After an all-night session in Brussels, she returned with a political agreement to tighten the exterior EU borders, as well as centralised asylum centres and bilateral refugee return deals.

But these measures were dismissed as aspirational by the CSU and, after a failed mediation effort on Monday chaired by Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble, Dr Merkel and Mr Seehofer joined their respective teams for another long night of talks.

Observers perplexed

The unprecedented crisis in Germany’s centre-right – with potential shock waves for the entire continent – has left even seasoned political observers perplexed.

“This is collective leadership failure . . . with no trust for the future and no goodwill,” said Prof Karl-Rudolf Korte, political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

He told German public television the crisis had damaged the chancellor “no longer at the peak of her power but at the end”.

Looking on at her coalition partners’ three-week meltdown, Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Andrea Nahles warned her that “patience is running thin”.

Speculation that the chancellor could bring in a new partner to replace the CSU has shifted attention to the most likely choice: the Green Party.

“We are always open to talks,” said Green co-leader Robert Habeck, “but I’m extremely sceptical about a fresh start after the chaos of the last days.”

Other opposition parties could barely contain their Schadenfreude at the perilous state of Dr Merkel's alliance.

“Any regular citizen who carried out their job like this would be rid of it in a flash,” said Dr Sahra Wagenknecht, Bundestag co-leader of the Left Party.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin