An “existential question” for Europe – or for Merkel herself?

Angela Merkel is in a race against time to fulfil a pledge for a new Europe-wide migration policy if she is to keep her conservative coalition together

The drawn-out coalition talks which eventually led to the present German Grand Coalition revealed deep divisions between the political parties around asylum and refugees, family reunification, and the policy of returning illegal migrants. Both the Greens and Social Democrats (SPD) sought a policy more open to refugees and immigration, with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reluctantly following. “Reluctantly”, because CDU discontent over her approach was already growing then, not least due to the electoral success of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland. The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), openly opposed her policy even before the 2017 general election.

The coalition agreement eventually reached between the CDU, CSU, and the Social Democrats found compromise wording for the contested issues. However, with the CSU chairman Horst Seehofer taking the ministry of interior, and Bavarian elections coming up this autumn, the stage was always set for another confrontation. It could hardly have been the number of arrivals that triggered the current coalition crisis. The number of people seeking to cross the border to Germany from Austria – the principal route for illegal entry – has remained flat compared to last year, and asylum applications are down nearly 20 percent.

Despite this, Seehofer has launched a new “masterplan” to comprehensively deal with migration. Most parts of the plan, like speeding up the asylum process, raised no controversy within the coalition. But his bid to upgrade border controls and to deny entry to anyone who had previously been registered in another European Union country has become a casus belli. Seehofer and leading politicians in Bavaria often expressing their demands in language even stronger than him – demanded a way to control the flow of people at the national level, arguing that using such a new instrument would also create more pressure for a Europe-wide response. The chancellor, however, insisted that the government should work for a European response first, rejecting any measures that would harm other member states and bring an end to the Dublin system of dealing with irregular migration in the Schengen area. Merkel’s approach aims at far-reaching integration of asylum and refugee policies, immigration, and control of external borders, all combined into a new solidarity mechanism between member states. In her vision, this would be more flexible than the highly controversial relocation quotas that were adopted but remained unimplemented at the peak of crisis in 2016.

The political escalation came about because of Seehofer’s order to the federal police to turn back all migrants registered in other member states; this was then countered by Merkel’s statement that this would contradict the policy guideline she had set within her prerogatives as chancellor. Both conservative party groupings in the Bundestag have endorsed their respective leaders’ stances – something which has never happened before on a policy issue. Merkel won over CDU parliamentarians only because she promised to deliver an EU-level outcome over the next two weeks. At this point, Seehofer gave in, delaying his order to the border police till the end of the month, while his followers eagerly spread the word that this delay would end automatically after two weeks. Merkel and her followers pointed out that there was no such automatic expiry; the chancellor announced meetings of her party’s lead bodies by the end of June to review the progress made by then.

Merkel’s big ‘if’ is whether Italy’s coalition government will even consider negotiations, given the Lega’s stance on returns and Five Star criticism of German hegemony

The stakes are high for both players: should the government fall over this, Seehofer’s role in federal politics would end, as would Merkel’s once agreement on another chancellor was reached. New elections would be the likely consequence as no other coalition seems feasible at this point. Depending on the degree of bloodshed, the traditional power-sharing pact between the two conservative parties might even end, meaning the CSU could lose its conservative monopoly in Bavaria. Meanwhile, the new Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder has become increasingly vocal beyond the bounds of his own state: he now talks about the EU in terms similar to those of Viktor Orban. His campaign in the Bavarian election will rest on his view that Europe needs to be built on strong national politics.

To win this conflict, Merkel will need to achieve the impossible by bringing about a European solution by the end of June. Disagreement among member states about key issues will not allow this to happen, however. Consensus does seem possible on additional means to improve the situation in countries of origin, and on new efforts to influence transit countries such as Libya and to cut trafficking. But upgrading Frontex (or indeed the longer-term goal of a European border police and coast guard) will meet resistance among southern European member states, while eastern member states remain deeply opposed to easing the burden in countries of arrival and destination. Merkel’s best chance, then, will be to state her case strongly and in unison with France and a coalition of other member states, to win acceptance on a process that could lead to an integrated EU policy over the longer term, and to prevent further moves to upset the Dublin system. Merkel and Emmanuel Macron demonstrated their joint determination on this front in their Meseberg declaration of 19 June.

Furthermore, the chancellor will need to prepare bilateral agreements with other member states on the return of migrants registered in those countries when they seek to enter Germany. Macron explicitly confirmed the French readiness for such an agreement on 19 June. Other partners, notably Austria, Greece, and Bulgaria, still have to be won over. The biggest challenge, however, will be a bilateral agreement with Italy. At their meeting on 18 June in Berlin, both Merkel and Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, emphasised the importance of the refugee issue but avoided making any public announcements after their discussions. For Germany, it would make sense to offer Italy a partnership along the lines of the deal with Turkey. Under such an agreement, Italy would receive additional financial aid and support in the fight against traffickers. Furthermore, Germany would offer to take in an agreed number of migrants who have formally been granted asylum or refugee status in Italy. In return, Italy would agree to take back all Italy-registered migrants that reach the German border. That said, such agreements would be only transitional in nature, bridging the time until an agreed European policy comes into effect. Merkel’s big ‘if’ is whether Italy’s coalition government will even consider negotiations along these lines, given the Lega’s stance against any returns and Five Star criticism of German hegemony in European affairs. She will seek to push the issue further in meetings with the countries most affected before the June European Council.

When the two-week standstill in her government expires, she will need to present the outcome as movement in the direction she has promised. Battle will then ensue over whether the degree of movement is enough. The skirmishes will be fuelled by those in the CSU and in Merkel’s own party who want to oust the chancellor. Merkel herself appears to have reached the same conclusion: that the conflict over her policy essentially is one about herself. Viewed through this prism, things fall into place, such as CSU pressure on Seehofer to go after the chancellor, coinciding with tweets by Donald Trump on her refugee policy, statements of his ambassador to Berlin about a conservative revolution, and pictures of Jens Spahn, one of the conservative critics of Merkel in the CDU, showing him and the US ambassador in harmony with their spouses. In recent statements and speeches, Merkel has described the migration issue as an existential question for Europe. It so happens that it has also become an existential question for herself.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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