(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If only Chancellor Angela Merkel had a euro for every time German journalists have pronounced her career over. Now, the prophets of doom are at it again. Although they are hyping the danger to Merkel, the domestic political crisis they are warning about is impeding her ability to get things done in Europe.
On the surface, Merkel’s fresh bout of trouble seems linked to the re-emergence of migration as the key issue in German politics. Yet the number of asylum seekers has fallen since the peak in 2016. In the first four months of this year, 56,127 first-time applications were filed, compared with 240,126 in the same period of 2016.
Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s interior minister, has come up with a tough plan to curb migration that he wanted to present on June 12. Merkel blocked him: She is dead set against his proposal to turn back asylum seekers at the German border if they’ve already registered in another European country.
Enforcing such a provision may be marginally possible under German law (although the courts would probably have to decide), but it would be against current European rules that only allow asylum seekers to be deported to the countries that registered them on arrival, which aren’t necessarily the nations from which they entered Germany.
Merkel is heavily involved in European Union-level negotiations to reform the bloc’s asylum system, which proved dysfunctional during the 2015 refugee crisis. Then, an attempt to set refugee quotas for each member state failed after it was stonewalled by Eastern European nations. The latest discussion centers on the harmonization of asylum procedures and on finding ways other than obligatory quotas to ease the burden of arrival countries. Seehofer’s proposal undermines Merkel’s desire for a unified European policy at the talks, which were supposed to conclude at an EU summit this month but are likely to drag on.
Seehofer could enact the plan by ministerial order over Merkel’s objections. He has long been an opponent of the chancellor’s openness to increased immigration. But this rebellion isn’t really about principle. Instead, it has to do with Seehofer’s position as leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Bavaria has a one-party government, not a coalition, led by the CSU. The next state election will be held in October, and Seehofer’s party is polling just above 40 percent, putting it in danger of losing its absolute majority.
Bavarian voters have demanded a tougher immigration policy since the state became an entry point to Germany from other EU countries for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016. Seehofer’s ally, Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Soeder, sees curbing what some are calling “asylum tourism” as a matter of credibility for the party.
Seehofer’s local political imperative is irreconcilable with Merkel’s far-reaching European plans. Germany has a political culture of negotiation and compromise, and the CSU is a partner in the governing coalition. If Seehofer pushes ahead with his plan and Merkel fires him, the coalition is likely to fall apart. This is almost unthinkable: The CDU and the CSU have been partners for decades.
The standoff has once again prompted the German media, especially the regional press, to take a dim view of Merkel’s ability to lead the government and of her political future. “The incumbent head of government has been plucked like a chicken after slaughter,” the Mannheimer Morgen wrote. “And by the CSU, too!”
That assessment is probably premature. As many times before, Merkel is far from finished and far from powerless. Without its union with her party, the CSU would lose influence on the national level, and that wouldn’t help it in the state election. If needed, Merkel could invite the pro-immigration Greens into the coalition. And no one wants a new national election except a few smaller parties.
The stakes may be higher for Seehofer than for the chancellor. That’s why he’s interested in a compromise that would allow him to appear principled in the eyes of Bavarian voters and would avoid a cataclysm in Berlin. He has reportedly offered compromise solutions that Merkel has rejected. Earlier disputes between Merkel and Seehofer ended peacefully, however, and this weekend, former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who is now the speaker of parliament, will try to mediate on Merkel’s behalf.
Somehow, the German allies will eventually work out their differences. But the intensity of this quarrel and its potential for destructive consequences ensure Merkel must constantly look over her shoulder as she negotiates with other European leaders. A state election in Germany could ruin a new deal on asylum rules as surely as any big EU member’s opposition.
The new asylum rules, however, must be worked out at the European level. Unilateral moves like those proposed by Seehofer can only lead to the re-emergence of hard borders on the continent, just when refugee inflows no longer present a serious danger of chaos or social crises.
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