Germany: Merkel’s sports minister causes trouble
- Besides losing to Mexico in the World Cup, the CSU’s Horst Seehofer (minister of interior including sports) had another pressing issue on his plate as tensions came to a head with the CDU on migration
- The CSU was to propose a plan to turn away migrants at the border who had registered elsewhere in the EU, prompting a veto from Merkel and leading to a showdown
- The current deal provides Merkel with a two-week deadline to try to find (bilateral) deals in Europe
- The likely result is a fudged compromise appeasing nobody but making sure Merkel remains in power for the time being
Angela Merkel’s position as CDU’s leader and chancellor of Germany is under attack from its closest Bavarian ally, the CSU. Its leader, interior and sports minister Horst Seehofer, headed for a frontal attack last week when he announced his plans to send immigrants back at Germany’s border, which would effectively close them. Today’s announcement of both leaders to (mostly) postpone the border controls for the coming two weeks buys some time for Merkel to negotiate a deal with other EU countries. The end result is likely to be some fudged compromised appeasing nobody, but keeping Merkel in power.
Much ado about something
Last Tuesday, Merkel blocked the previously announced presentation of Seehofer’s “masterplan” on immigration. The reason was Seehofer’s plan to send back migrants at Germany’s border who already registered in other EU member states. This would practically lead to a closed border in Germany’s south, as most migrants who arrive there are previously registered at other EU-entry countries such as Italy and Greece. Merkel fears that other countries, such as Austria, would subsequently also close their border, effectively unravelling the Schengen area. Tensions quickly escalated and on Thursday both fractions of CSU and CDU took the unusual step of meeting separately from each other. Both parties emerged united behind their respective leaders, further emboldening both sides to harden their positions. Further talks over the weekend, briefly paused for the Germany – Mexico World Cup match, resulted in a compromise typical for Merkel’s leadership style: Seehofer will go ahead with his plan of border controls, but will wait for two weeks with implementing them, giving Merkel a deadline to make a European deal.
“I can’t work with this woman any longer!”
Tensions in German politics have flared up ever since the watershed decision by Merkel in 2015 to let immigrants into the country unhindered. The subsequent rise of the far-right AfD has spooked the conservative Bavarian CSU, traditionally the most socially conservative right-wing party in Germany. Furthermore, the CSU faces a state election in Bavaria in October, further encouraging its lunge to the right. It may well lose its absolute majority (due to the AfD), which would only be the second time in half a century. At the same time, Merkel is more vulnerable since last year’s election outcome (the worst for the CDU/CSU since the second world war). We already argued last year this may lead to increased tensions with the CSU. Indeed, even within the CDU. Its health minister Jens Spahn used to opportunity to try to dislodge her (but failed). Merkel still enjoys large support within the CDU and as of now remains Germany’s most popular politician. Many state level CDU-factions have also voiced their frustration with the increasingly conservative CSU’s antics. On the other side frustrations also were close to a boiling point with Seehofer reportedly shouting at least once “I can’t work with this woman any longer!”.
 The CSU only fields candidates in Bavaria (one of Germany’s 16 states), whereas the CDU runs campaigns in the rest of the country. Together they support the same candidate for chancellor.
Merkel down (again), but definitely not out
The CSU’s attempt to damage Merkel’s image has been successful. She is now perceived in Europe as losing grip on her closest partner while she faces daunting tasks in the EU on reform and the world amidst geopolitical tensions. But counting her out is (once again) too early. She can make bilateral deals with Italy and other immigrant-entry countries. She can still fire Seehofer if he pushes ahead in two weeks. This could mean the fall of her government, but the CSU should realise it hurts them as well, as it has not provided any alternative for Merkel. A formal split between CDU & CSU is not unprecedented. This happened before under Kohl in 1976. Back then, the threat of the CDU standing for election in Bavaria brought the CSU back. This is also still an option for Merkel: the deadline to field candidates in Bavaria is on August 2nd. In the case of a withdrawal of CSU support she may even rely on the Greens in the Bundestag.
Moreover, the CSU’s position could backfire. For the AfD-inclined the aspired CSU-policies are not strict enough, for the more moderately inclined CSU-supporter its behaviour is seen as irresponsible, drawing them to the Greens. Employer lobbies already spoke out against Seehofer’s plans and effectively closing all circa 80 roads (many of which are rural) crossing the border in Bavaria may prove not feasible in the near term. Having said all that, the debate surrounding the topic of immigration has turned so toxic in most EU member states that there is a real risk of parties not acting rationally.
The most likely outcome remains some fudged deal that appeases nobody but buys Merkel enough backing and time to remain in her position. Counting out Germany’s longest surviving politician is premature: the prospect of Merkel-Dämmerung remains distant.