The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Merkel holds on precariously, Trump tweets Germans ‘are turning against their leadership’ on migration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is at odds on migration policy with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a clash that is threatening her governing coalition.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is at odds on migration policy with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a clash that is threatening her governing coalition. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

BERLIN — After days of high-wire negotiation with rebellious allies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took to a podium in Berlin on Monday to announce a compromise on migration that will hold her government back from the brink of collapse — at least for now.

Minutes later, President Trump took to Twitter to implicitly cheer for her fall. 

“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted. “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

The mutual contempt between the U.S. president and the leader of Europe’s most populous nation has long been known. But the tweet was widely seen here as a new low in the relationship, an attempt to destabilize the chancellor at a vulnerable moment.

European leaders are indignant and defiant over Trump’s G-7 statement. But they’re not surprised.

“Regime change among your own allies? It’s another level,” said J.D. Bindenagel, a former senior American diplomat to Germany and professor at the University of Bonn. “This was a very direct and personal attack.” 

Whether it would have the desired effect was unclear. Trump’s words were widely ridiculed in Germany, even among Merkel critics.

But there’s little doubt that Merkel’s position is precarious. 

Europe is struggling to share responsibility for thousands of migrants. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to avert a crisis that's fraying her country. (Video: Reuters)

“Her base is eroding,” Bindenagel said. “That’s a very serious problem.”

The deal she announced Monday is a temporary reprieve, not a long-term solution. It gives her two weeks to strike a deal with fellow E.U. leaders and to satisfy her country’s hard-liners on an issue that has bedeviled the continent for the past three years.

The new deadline removes, for now, the immediate threat that Merkel’s government will collapse amid a mutiny by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the hard-line Bavarian sister party of the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). 

But it puts pressure on Merkel to reach a deal with her European counterparts at a summit next week or risk the revival of a showdown that has kept Berlin on edge for days.

As of late last week, the CSU’s leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, had been threatening to defy Merkel as early as Monday and to implement border controls she opposes. Had he gone ahead, the chancellor would have had a fateful choice: acquiesce and emerge a dramatically weakened leader, or fire Seehofer and risk a break with the CSU that could bring down her government.

That choice now could be delayed until July 1 if Merkel fails to win concessions from her fellow E.U. leaders, a possibility given that the tide has moved against her in Europe with the election of governments promoting anti-migrant policies in Italy and Austria. If she succeeds, the clash could be avoided.

“If you know Europe, you know this is not an easy task,” Merkel said Monday. “But I also think it is worthwhile, especially in order to keep CDU and CSU united.” 

Trump’s criticism of Merkel’s refu­gee policy comes after an acrimonious G-7 summit and as he is under intense fire for his administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!” Trump tweeted.

Germans reacting to his tweets noted that crime in Germany is actually at the lowest level in more than a quarter-century, a fact that Seehofer himself announced last month. 

And Merkel, despite the struggles to hold her coalition together, remains the country’s most popular politician, with a 50 percent approval rating. Just 22 percent of Germans approve of U.S. leadership, a dramatic reversal from the Barack Obama years.

“Always the same nonsense from the weird man in the White House,” wrote Ralf Stegner, deputy leader of Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats.

“And the earth is flat and #KimJongUn a great leader!” wrote Merkel’s CDU ally, Johann Wadephul.

Germans are especially attuned to what are seen as Trump administration attempts to interfere in their politics. 

Earlier this month, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany, Trump ally Richard Grenell, told the hard-right news outlet Breitbart that he saw it as part of his job to “empower” conservative politicians across Europe. He singled out Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — who is significantly to Merkel’s right and has been critical of her on immigration — for praise.

The showdown in Germany over asylum policy has exposed deep rifts on the European right and laid bare a struggle for political supremacy on the continent.

U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell suggests he wants to ‘empower’ the right

Seehofer has proposed blocking asylum seekers who have registered in another European country from entering Germany. He argues that the country needs to abide by the “Dublin Regulation,” which stipulates that asylum seekers apply for protection in the first E.U. country they enter. 

Merkel, who opened the country to more than a million people fleeing war, oppression and poverty in 2015 and 2016, vehemently opposes making such a move unilaterally. She is pressing for a Europe-wide solution to avoid what she called on Monday “a negative domino effect.”

Seehofer said in his own news conference Monday — which began even as Merkel was still taking questions — that he hoped for a European solution but would be forced to act if one is not reached. “We wish the chancellor much success,” he said. “But we are sticking with our position.” 

Migration has become even more fraught in Europe since the new populist government in Italy barred a rescue ship from the country’s ports last week, forcing it to reroute to Spain. 

Austria’s Kurz last week declared a new “axis of the willing against illegal migration,” which he said would feature Germany, Italy and his own country. He announced the plan in Berlin with Seehofer, not Merkel, by his side. 

Calls for tougher policies have come even though the number of people reaching European shores in search of protection has declined. About 700,000 people sought asylum in E.U. countries last year, down 44 percent from 2016, according to figures released Monday by the European Asylum Support Agency. 

Germany had the most asylum seekers, with more than 200,000. Most of the people who arrive in Germany have traveled through other E.U. nations to reach a country where the economy is booming and jobs are relatively plentiful.

Seehofer and Merkel lead parties that have allied with each other for decades and formed the basis for successive Merkel governments since she came to power in 2005.

But the two have often clashed. During the height of the refugee crisis, Seehofer was sharply critical of Merkel’s open-door policy, which involved accepting asylum seekers even after they had passed through other E.U. nations.

After Merkel bowed to pressure from the CSU and made Seehofer her interior minister this spring, he told the Bild newspaper: “Islam does not belong to Germany. Germany is characterized by Christianity.”

Merkel made clear she disagreed. 

Some political analysts suggest that the CSU manufactured the migration showdown to mobilize right-wing voters ahead of critical Bavarian state elections in October. While the CSU is widely expected to win that vote, it faces a strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.

Even if the crisis is part theater, it represents a real threat to Merkel’s hold on power, which has steadily weakened since the CDU-CSU alliance underperformed in elections last September.

Eurasia Group analyst Charles Lichfield on Monday put the chances of Merkel losing power as a result of the dust-up with the CSU at 25 percent.

“Political obituaries for Chancellor Angela Merkel tend to be premature,” Lichfield wrote. “But the legacy of the 2015 migration crisis could yet force her sudden demise over the next two weeks.”

Luisa Beck contributed to this report.

The retreat of rescue ships from the Mediterranean is a sign of changing odds for migrants

Migrants say these mass shelters are like prisons. Germany wants to build more.

Italy’s new government sends immigration message by rejecting rescue ship

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news