Merkel dealt humiliating blow by own party in refugee policy row
At least 10 CDU MPs speak out against chancellor in favour of tougher asylum rules
Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the German government’s integration summit in Berlin on Wednesday. Photograph: Jens Buttner/AFP/Getty Images
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz (left) and German interior minister Horst Seehofer shake hands following a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday. Phototgraph: Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s backbenchers have dealt her an unprecedented humiliation by declining to back her refugee policy line in a heated meeting of her party, the CDU.
After her MPs sided with a tougher line proposed by their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz did the same, calling for an “axis of the willing” to halt inward migration to the EU.
Both events are a boost for CSU chairman Horst Seehofer, who promised “fundamental change” on asylum when he was appointed federal interior minister three months ago.
He had planned to unveil an action plan this week, including measures to deport people seeking asylum in Germany who are already registered elsewhere in the EU.
But Dr Merkel intervened, warning that a hardline border policy would annoy frontline refugee crisis countries such as Greece and Italy and scupper dwindling hopes of securing a pan-EU refugee deal at this month’s Brussels summit.
After the two had a major falling out, Mr Seehofer cancelled plans to present the paper in public, showed it to a meeting of CSU allies and boycotted an integration meeting on Wednesday in the chancellery.
Instead, in a clear political statement, he had a meeting – and press conference – with the visiting Austrian chancellor, Mr Kurz.
The German minister has already signalled “complete agreement” on protecting EU outer borders with Italy’s right-wing populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.
On Wednesday his Austrian visitor praised Mr Seehofer as a “strong partner” in a “coalition of the willing” to tighten illegal immigration during Austria’s EU presidency from July.
Mr Kurz said it was in Europe’s “fundamental interest” to close down a new migration route – through Greece, Montenegro and Bosnia – “before the numbers rise agai”n.
“We as Europe decide who comes to us, not the traffickers,” he said.
Two years ago Mr Kurz, then Austria’s foreign minister, fell out with Dr Merkel over his move to close down the so-called “Balkan migration route”.
The chancellor used a joint press conference on Tuesday evening to concede that “urgent changes” are necessary to EU refugee and asylum rules.
But she called for “sustainable” solutions, not unilateral action, achieved through “changes we take together”. Many of her loudest asylum critics accuse her of unilateral action in the 2015 crisis and are blocking plans for a refugee redistribution quota at European level.
At the same time support is draining away in Germany for maintaining the asylum status quo after a recent series of violent attacks against German citizens with asylum seeker suspects.
The attacks have catalysed a return of issues last aired in the 2015-2016 crisis between the CDU and the Bavarian CSU, then on the frontline of the European refugee wave.
The sister parties agreed an uneasy truce before last September’s election, and signed up to an ambiguously-worded commitment in the new coalition agreement to 220,000 migrants a year.
But the CSU, which blinked in the last round of the refugee standoff with the CDU, now sees public opinion on its side. Next October Bavarians elect a new state parliament likely to contain politicians from the ascendant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
The refugee row, political analysts agree, is a proxy war to influence how many Bavarian seats the party will win.
It’s not just the CSU feeling the pressure: CDU Bundestag backbenchers feeling constituent unease are either openly siding with Mr Seehofer against Dr Merkel – or keeping quiet. It’s not yet a full mutiny, but a telling moment in what, until now, has been a steady 18-year run for her as leader.
One main problem standing in the way of the CDU/CSU leaders resolving the issue is conflicting expert opinion on whether there is a legal obligation to return new arrivals from EU neighbouring states under the so-called Dublin rules.
Another problem is personal, with Dr Merkel and Mr Seehofer long-term frenemies on Germany’s political stage. After once attacking her refugee policies as a “rule of injustice”, Mr Seehofer eventually fell into line behind Dr Merkel – only to see both parties trounced at the polls last year.
As he sides with EU hardliners to rescue his party’s credibility, his predecessor as CSU leader Edmund Stoiber has described the outcome of the immigration standoff with Angela Merkel as “existential” for a party that has ruled Bavaria continuously for 61 years.