BERLIN — Angela Merkel faces a race against time to defuse a dispute over migration that has ballooned into the most serious threat yet to her 12 ½-year reign as German chancellor, and she could use help from her European partners.
The bitter argument erupted suddenly two weeks ago. It pits Merkel against Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and his Bavaria-based Christian Social Union party, which is focused on a challenging October election in its home state.
It has exposed deep tensions in her fourth-term governing coalition, just over 100 days in office. Speculation is rife about a possible breakup of the conservative bloc of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Seehofer’s CSU, which together have been Germany’s leading political force for much of its post-war history.
That, in turn, could trigger a collapse of the government.
Seehofer wants Germany to turn back migrants at the border who have previously applied for asylum or registered as asylum-seekers in other European countries.
Merkel, however, is determined that Germany shouldn’t take unilateral action without agreement with other EU countries, fearing a cascade of uncoordinated decisions that could further fray European unity.
The CSU gave her two weeks to make deals with other European countries. Seehofer, the party leader, is threatening to push through his plan under his powers as interior minister against the chancellor’s will next week if it isn’t satisfied.
Merkel instigated a mini-summit of 16 European Union countries on migration in Brussels Sunday, which produced few concrete results. On Thursday and Friday, she hopes for more progress at a full summit of the 28-nation EU, though in case that fails she is also seeking agreements with individual countries on issues such as taking back migrants.
Tensions over migration have inflamed political debate across Europe, with governments struggling to agree in recent years on how to handle newcomers and populist parties taking a share of power in some countries.
On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU and Seehofer’s CSU will hold separate leadership meetings to mull what has been achieved. So far, no compromise that would satisfy both sides has emerged. Neither yet appears prepared to lose face by climbing down.
Seehofer argues that he’s entitled to order migrants turned back unilaterally, but leading CDU members have made clear that Merkel would then have little choice but to fire him — which in turn would almost inevitably prompt the CSU to quit the government.
That would leave the remaining partners, the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats, short of a parliamentary majority. It would also shake Germany’s political system, potentially splitting the CDU from the traditionally more conservative CSU after seven decades and resulting in the two parties competing with each other nationwide.
It appears unlikely that Merkel, who negotiated unsuccessfully last fall to form a coalition with the left-leaning Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, could bring in a new governing partner in those circumstances.
That would raise the possibility of an early election, from which the anti-establishment and anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, could expect to benefit. Whether Merkel would run again is unclear, as is who might run instead.
The influx of migrants to Germany — most of whom first set foot in Bavaria, which borders Austria — has dropped sharply over the past two years. But this dispute is essentially a tale of two elections: Germany’s national election last September, and an upcoming Oct. 14 state vote in Bavaria.
In September, the governing parties all lost significant support. The CSU saw its share of the vote in Bavaria drop to 38.8 percent — ringing alarm bells over its ability to keep its absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament this year, the party’s top priority.
The poor performance came despite Seehofer’s strident criticism of Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep Germany’s borders open as migrants streamed across the Balkans, and his never-enacted threat to file a lawsuit against her government over border security.
Since then, CSU leaders have talked even tougher over migration, hoping to curb AfD’s support in the upcoming Bavarian election, and Seehofer has faced increasing pressure from rivals to stand firm.
He now has to share power in the CSU with Markus Soeder, a younger rival who took over from him as Bavarian governor in March and has taken a particularly tough stance, referring repeatedly to a need to end “asylum tourism.”
Soeder has insisted that his party’s credibility is at stake and there must be no more “half-measures” on migration.
Merkel has toughened her migration policy significantly since 2015, but remains adamant that her stance then was correct. She rejects CSU assertions that her decision to leave the borders open divided Europe, noting that she consulted with Austria and Hungary.
The tone appears to have calmed somewhat over recent days, which also brought a poll that suggested the CSU’s attempt to use political brute force against Merkel may be backfiring in Bavaria. And, while some CDU members would like to see migrants turned back, the CSU’s approach appears to have rallied many behind Merkel — at least for now.
Germany’s president this week urged the governing parties to come to their senses.
It remains to be seen whether his appeal will be heard and all can find a face-saving solution.
But even if Merkel can keep the government intact, one thing is clear: recent events have exposed the limits of her power and generated ill will that won’t quickly be forgotten.
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