Merkel’s coalition in the balance as allies row over migration

CSU yet to accept EU proposals while minister pledges to begin turning back migrants

Germany’s coalition crisis escalated on Sunday as chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies struggled to accept last week’s Brussels refugee agreement.

A crisis meeting of the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Munich dragged on into late evening amid disagreement over whether last week's EU political proposals on asylum seekers were sufficiently robust to avoid German border closures.

“The situation is serious, everyone knows that,” said Dr Merkel on German television on Sunday evening.

From Monday, CSU leader Horst Seehofer, federal interior minister in Berlin, said he would instruct police to turn back at German borders migrants without valid papers, and those already refused asylum or registered elsewhere in the EU – unless Dr Merkel could convince European leaders to sign up to “equivalent” measures to reduce asylum numbers in Germany.


The chancellor returned from last week’s all-night summit agreement convinced she had a deal to appease the CSU, but her hopes of ending her coalition crisis evaporated in a long weekend of closed-door meetings and megaphone diplomacy.

With an eye on Friday's summit, warning that unilateral measures could endanger the Schengen free-travel area, Dr Merkel warned her Bavarian allies against "unco-ordinated, unilateral measures in Europe at the expense of" other member states".

“Europe works slowly and . . . even after this summit this [migration] issue is far from resolved,” she said. “I am in favour of Europe remaining together.”

Acknowledging her political career hung in the balance, Dr Merkel reportedly told political allies a CSU refusal to accept last week’s summit conclusion would mean “I don’t need to show my face again in Europe”.

Friday’s political agreement in Brussels promises to step up controls on the EU outer border and bring migrants to central processing camps inside and outside the EU.

In addition, Berlin struck bilateral agreements with Greece, Spain and a reported dozen others to send back from Germany asylum seekers already registered there.

After conciliatory signals on Friday, senior CSU officials said on Sunday that, on closer inspection, the agreement was filled with “contradictory small steps”.

Liberal refugee policy

The CDU and CSU sister parties have wrestled on Dr Merkel’s liberal refugee policy since Germany accepted more than 1.4 million people in 2015 and 2016.

Germany has tightened up its asylum procedures since then and new arrivals have fallen dramatically. But the CSU wants even tougher border rules to salvage its law-and-order profile, and endangered absolute majority, when Bavarians choose a new state parliament in October.

If Mr Seehofer goes against Dr Merkel’s wishes she is likely to fire him, triggering a walkout of CSU ministers in Berlin and a likely rupture of the 69-year-old CDU/CSU parliamentary party alliance and Dr Merkel’s coalition.

Asked if she would discipline her rebellious coalition partner with a Bundestag confidence motion, Dr Merkel replied: “We’ll see.”

On Sunday evening, Dr Merkel appeared to concede her response to the refugee crisis had given a political boost to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

“Perhaps there is sometimes a yearning for simple answers,” she said, “and that without Merkel there would be no migration problem.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin