Merkel’s coalition could collapse as showdown over asylum approaches

Chancellor’s Bavarian allies defy her attempts to broker a compromise

German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves the Reichstag housing the Bundestag  after a meeting with the leadership of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party on Wednesday  in Berlin. Photograph:  Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves the Reichstag housing the Bundestag after a meeting with the leadership of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party on Wednesday in Berlin. Photograph: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty

 

Germany’s three-month-old coalition government faces the threat of collapse amid an unprecedented asylum showdown between chancellor Angela Merkel and her Bavarian allies.

The Bavarian CSU, lead by federal interior minister Horst Seehofer, has threatened to push through tougher rules to expel asylum seekers by Monday – defying Dr Merkel’s attempts to broker a compromise. 

Growing public unrest at the after-effects of the 2015-16 refugee crisis has emboldened the CSU to push for far-reaching reform. Mr Seehofer has drafted a migration “master plan” to send asylum seekers without papers in Germany back to their EU country of origin.

Dr Merkel has blocked the reforms, saying they will undermine her fading efforts to secure a pan-EU refugee deal later this month in Brussels.

But with her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) showing only limited support for its leader earlier this week – and many of its MPs displaying outright sympathy for the tougher CSU position – Dr Merkel looks weaker than at any time in her 13 years in the chancellery.

Normal parliamentary business was put on hold on Thursday to allow for separate emergency meetings of the centre-right CDU and CSU parties. Afterwards, leading party figures on both sides conceded they faced a “historic” situation and possible rupture in their 40-year-old shared parliamentary party arrangement.

“It is serious, very serious,” said Alexander Dobrindt, CSU parliamentary group leader. “The master plan is the direct responsibility of the interior minister, who comes from our ranks.” He said his party was “100 per cent” behind the Seehofer plan.

Unless a compromise is reached, Mr Seehofer has threatened to push through his plan on Monday by decree – an act of insubordination that is likely to collapse the government.

“Every minister is allowed decide independently whatever comes inside his portfolio,” said Prof Jürgen Falter, political scientist of the University of Mainz. “But the chancellor can use her powers to stop him. If Mr Seehofer doesn’t adhere to that, she has to fire him from his ministry.” 

Burden-sharing

At a late-night meeting on Wednesday, Dr Merkel proposed turning back at the border asylum seekers who had already been rejected by Germany. Another proposal would see bi- and tri-lateral burden-sharing deals with countries where migrants first registered in the EU.

But the CSU rejected those ideas, with an eye on Bavaria’s state election next month that is likely to be decided on the migration issue. Some 1.6 million people have arrived in Germany since 2014, with Bavaria on the frontlines, and many centre-right politicians blame Dr Merkel’s open-door refugee policy for the surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Already the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, it is likely to enter the Bavarian state parliament in the autumn – possibly even costing the CSU its absolute majority.

The CDU and CSU have clashed many times on the asylum issue, with the CSU taking a consistently harder line. In the past the Bavarians have eventually fallen into line. But, after a series of high profile violent attacks and killings in which asylum seekers have been suspects, they are confident now they have public opinion behind them.

On Thursday, a public television poll showed 62 per cent of Germans believe refugees without papers should not be allowed to enter Germany. It also showed just 37 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with the work of Merkel’s fledgling coalition.

Her junior coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has called on the CDU/CSU to end their row “as soon as possible”, and blamed the Bavarians for the escalation.

“Drama intended to serve the cause of regional elections aren’t appropriate here,” said Andrea Nahles, SPD leader.

Down south, however, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder demanded that “asylum tourism” to Germany be brought to an end. “Germany cannot wait endlessly for Europe, but must act independently,” he said. With an eye on Monday’s looming deadline, he added: “We’re in the end game.”

After days of hesitation, and sensing a growing crisis, CDU delegates meeting in the Reichstag parliament building finally rallied around Dr Merkel and backed her compromise proposals rejected by the CSU.

Dr Merkel welcomed the vote, which she said left her feeling “strenghtened”.