BERLIN — The German government has nearly collapsed over the question of immigration, an issue that has toppled — or threatened to topple — a number of establishment governments across the European Union. Here's what you need to know.
There’s lots of talk about a migrant crisis. But is this really a crisis?
The numbers reveal a different picture. There is no longer a “migrant crisis” per se, but there is definitely a political crisis over the issue of migration. In Germany in particular, there is the memory of 2015, when Merkel welcomed nearly 1 million migrants and refugees as part of what she had christened Germany’s “Willkommenskultur,” or culture of welcoming. Her opponents within Germany and across Europe have regularly attacked her for that, forcing her to reverse course, as her recent standoff with Horst Seehofer, her own interior minister, clearly showed.
But the numbers speak for themselves. This year, the numbers of incoming migrant arrivals into Europe have fallen back to pre-2015 levels. In 2016, for instance, as many as 62,000 people applied for asylum in Germany every month. In the first portion of 2018, that number has fallen to nearly 15,000, according to official German immigration statistics. The same is true across the E.U., with illegal arrivals down across the board.
According to Eurostat, the official data collection arm of the E.U., first-time asylum seekers dropped by 25 percent in the first quarter of 2018, in comparison with the same period in 2017. This is not to say that Germany and other European countries have not faced difficulties in integrating the migrants who did arrive, but merely to show that the “crisis” at this point is entirely political.
Why has all of this arisen now?
In Germany, there is a particular reason this is happening now. Merkel’s coalition is a fragile paring dominated by her party, the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU. The CSU faces regional elections in its home constituency of affluent, conservative Bavaria in October, and the party has already lost some ground in Bavaria to the far-right, populist party of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The hard-line anti-immigrant antics of Seehofer, CSU's leader, were widely seen as a vote-grubbing tactic in advance of the October vote. For the moment, the strategy hasn’t been successful: Recent polls in Bavaria still show a 1.9 percent drop in support for the CDU/CSU coalition, next to a 2.4 percent rise in support for the AfD. Granted, some in CSU resent Seehofer’s posturing, given that, in their eyes, he has risked a national — and European — political crisis over the future of his own political party.
“One thing is very clear: The stability of the government is not a question for us,” Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier — as well as Seehofer’s rival in the party — told German news wires Monday. “One can reach a lot within a government, but not outside of it.”
The context also unfolds against the backdrop of a European establishment increasingly preoccupied by the migration question, and Merkel is far from alone when it comes to nominally liberal European leaders under mounting domestic pressure to take a harder line on migrants. French President Emmanuel Macron, who will pass a hard-line immigration law later this summer, is no exception. In a recent speech, Macron said that the leaders of liberal Europe need to accept that the continent “cannot welcome everyone,” This, he said, was a “more responsible” approach than “playing on people’s fears.”
“I want France and its national cohesion to remain intact,” he said.
What has Merkel agreed to do about it?
Merkel may have been celebrated as a liberal icon, despite being the leader of Germany's conservative party, but her recent compromise on immigration has shifted her further to the right. The chancellor never was the pro-open borders leader her critics portrayed her as — she pushed for the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers and toughening laws — but her latest deal may mark a crucial turning point.
Agreeing to send some migrants back upon entering the country is controversial for a number of reasons, including its effect on the borderless Schengen area. Much of continental Europe is free of border controls, but countries have recently reintroduced checks in some areas where large numbers of immigrants enter. That agreement may be at risk if countries decide to reimpose permanent border controls. Human rights organizations are also raising doubts about whether the transit centers where migrants would be held before deportation would violate those individuals' rights.
While Merkel has repeatedly emphasized that a European solution is needed, the solutions she eventually came up with may not be in line with European law, according to some interpretations. That's probably one reason Merkel and her government will now seek to strike bilateral treaties with countries to enforce her compromise with the CSU.
The current compromise may preserve Merkel’s government for the moment, but there are at least two hurdles that could still pose risks. First, the past two weeks have further widened the divide between Merkel’s CDU and the CSU, which has adopted an increasingly hardcore conservative stance on a number of issues. While both parties have agreed to go back to the status quo for now, Seehofer's demands and his desire to stand up to Merkel were rooted in much deeper dissatisfaction that has mounted for years. Those tensions could explode once again.
Second, it remains unclear how other E.U. member states will respond. To preserve the fragile partnership between the CDU and the CSU, southern European nations will have to comply with a broad deal struck last week to regulate migrant flows in Europe.
Austria's role may become especially decisive in the coming weeks, as the Alpine nation between Germany and Italy has for years been a hub for refugees trying to reach Munich or Berlin. Merkel's deal with the CSU that is currently keeping her in power includes plans to reject migrants who cannot enter the country under German law at the border and deport them back to Austria.
To avoid having to take in additional migrants who were on their way to Germany but were removed on arrival, Austria could impose similar measures on its own southern borders or refuse to host individuals sent back by German authorities.
The latter would be one of the worst-case scenarios for Merkel.
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