German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition was at risk of collapse Sunday as her conservative allies rejected an EU-wide deal she struck last week to reduce migration, escalating a crisis that has poisoned the country’s politics for weeks.
Merkel’s centre-right CDU and their hardline Bavarian CSU allies gathered at separate meetings in Berlin and Munich during the afternoon to mull their next moves, with CSU leader and interior minister Horst Seehofer expected to announce either a compromise or open defiance later Sunday.
Seehofer complained to fellow party bosses that he had endured a “conversation with no effect” with the chancellor on Saturday about the EU summit results, sources told AFP.
After the Bavarians’ relentless pressure on Merkel, European leaders on Friday agreed to new measures to reduce immigration to the bloc and so-called “secondary migration” of asylum-seekers between countries.
Merkel, who has been in office since 2005, warned last week the issue of migration could decide the very future of the EU itself.
Earlier Sunday, she told broadcaster ZDF she would do “everything possible to achieve results that mean we can continue to assume responsibility for our country”, although the falling-out between the CDU and CSU was “serious”.
Seehofer has rejected Merkel’s assessment that the EU-wide measures would “have the same effect” as his demand to turn away at the border asylum-seekers already registered in other EU nations.
If he orders border police to go ahead with the scheme in defiance of the chancellor, Merkel would be forced to fire him, in turn prompting a CSU walkout that would cost her majority in parliament.
No sign of Seehofer
A 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) deadline for Seehofer to face the press came and went with no sign of the white-haired politician.
“It’s not about who comes out on top, but about what’s right,” Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder told the CSU gathering, according to the news agency DPA citing participants in the meeting.
Meanwhile sources inside Merkel’s CDU camp told DPA that party leaders were united behind the chancellor.
“The image of the country, our ability to act and our ability to govern” were at stake, said economy minister and close Merkel ally Peter Altmaier as he arrived for the Berlin talks.
The CSU’s discontent comes despite many of its longstanding migration demands appearing in the EU summit deal.
Leaders agreed Friday to consider setting up “disembarkation platforms” outside the EU, most likely in North Africa, in a bid to discourage migrants and refugees boarding EU-bound smuggler boats.
Member countries could also create processing centres to determine whether the new arrivals are returned home as economic migrants or admitted as refugees in willing states.
At the national level, Merkel also proposes that migrants arriving in Germany who first registered in another EU country should be placed in special “admissions centres” under restrictive conditions, according to a document she sent to the CSU and coalition partners the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The document also outlined deals with 16 other countries to return already-registered migrants if they reached Germany.
In a newspaper interview, Germany’s EU Commissioner Guenther Oettinger reminded fellow conservatives that Merkel’s “respect and authority” among member countries were “very valuable for Germany, no-one should destroy it”.
But several central European nations including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia denied they had agreed to accept returned migrants.
The chancellor’s frantic last-minute diplomacy was ultimately prompted by the CSU’s fear of losing its cherished absolute majority in Bavaria’s state parliament.
The “Free State” with its beer-and-lederhosen Alpine traditions, powerful industries and impenetrable dialect has a more conservative bent than other German regions.
But the CSU and CDU together form a centre-right force that has dominated national politics for decades.
Political stability was upset by Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep borders open to migrants and refugees arriving from the Middle East via the Balkans, Hungary and Austria.
Since then, more than one million people have arrived in Germany, while Merkel’s governments have repeatedly tightened immigration and asylum laws.
Nevertheless, the anti-refugee, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) was propelled into federal parliament for the first time last year by outrage over immigration, leading to months of paralysis while Merkel struggled to find a workable coalition.
Opinion polls point to the AfD making a similarly spectacular entrance to Bavaria’s parliament in October.
Weeks of “Merkel-bashing”, however, have failed to help the CSU, as a Forsa poll last week showed around 68 percent of Bavarians backed Merkel’s quest for a Europe-wide answer to migration rather than Germany going it alone.