Merkel Will Ride Out This Crisis, Too
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday reached a shaky compromise with her Bavarian coalition partner that gives her two weeks to make a deal with other European Union leaders on reforms to the bloc’s dysfunctional asylum system. It’s a tall order, but President Donald Trump is wrong to suggest that the migration issue is about to take down Merkel’s government.
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “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!"
Not really. Despite Trump’s claims, crime is down in Germany, though the share of offenses committed by immigrants briefly went up at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, before falling back in 2017. The U.S. president is also wrong about the viability of the coalition formed by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats: The governing parties’ approval ratings almost track their share of the vote in elections from last year. The most recent government crisis, which involves Merkel and her interior minister Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, has more to do with Seehofer’s bid to win the Bavarian state election in October than with national politics and policies.
To avoid losing voters to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Seehofer has adopted a strategy that worked for center-right politicians in the Netherlands and Austria: He is trying to show that he can be tough on immigration without giving up his centrist credentials. He has drafted a hard-line plan on migration that Merkel opposes: It would require asylum seekers already registered in another EU country to be turned away at the German border, a move that would violate current EU rules.
Although Seehofer reluctantly accepted the chancellor’s welcoming policy toward refugees in 2015 and 2016, as interior minister he now can claim a somewhat legitimate reason for concern. The number of asylum seekers has fallen from the peak in 2016, but most of the immigrants now crossing the Mediterranean aren’t really refugees: They come from countries where there is no war or turmoil that puts their lives in danger. For example, in January through April 2016, at the peak of asylum applications, Germany didn’t receive a significant number of Nigerians. In the first four months of this year, their applications made up 6.7 percent of the total.
Merkel would have no problem limiting the growing influx of people who are migrating for economic reasons. But she has refused to endorse Seehofer’s plan, arguing that Germany cannot take unilateral action that undermines European unity, establishes a de-facto hard border and dumps unwanted immigrants on neighboring nations. Still, she doesn’t want to fire Seehofer because that would undermine her party’s decades-old alliance with the CSU.
Seehofer doesn’t want to blow up the alliance, either. He would clearly prefer a different leader than Merkel, but her party has rallied behind her. On Monday, the two sides compromised: The interior minister promised he wouldn’t push through his plan by ministerial order for the next two weeks, giving Merkel time to negotiate an EU-wide solution to what the CSU calls "asylum tourism.”
The decisive moment is supposed to be the EU summit June 28-29, but it’s not clear EU leaders could reach an agreement. The state of play on asylum reform is not promising; Criteria still differ significantly among member states, and it would be a big step forward if they could even agree on a list of countries of origin from which migrants won’t be accepted.
The ideal outcome is a single asylum system for the EU, but that isn’t likely in the near future. Southern European nations, which receive the most newcomers, want others to relieve them of the burden. Eastern European countries don’t want any immigrants. The wealthier nations, including the Netherlands, France, Germany and the Nordic states, are favored destinations for migrants and don’t want to be overwhelmed.
So there’s not much Merkel can do to stave off another confrontation with Seehofer in July. One option would be to make bilateral deals with Italy, Greece and Bulgaria modeled on the successful bargain the EU made with Turkey in March 2016 thanks to Merkel. That could mean significant payments from Germany to entry countries in exchange for preventing the refugees they register upon arrival from going on to Germany -- and for taking them back if they do reach German territory.
Any deals Merkel makes, no matter how difficult to enforce, would probably avert a confrontation with Seehofer, who won’t want to appear unreasonable. But a unified European asylum system, along with other solutions, like better external EU border protection and a bigger effort to persuade North African countries to keep people from risking a Mediterranean crossing, will still be needed to reduce the influx of immigrants and keep voters happy. It’s certain to remain a preoccupation for Merkel during what is likely to be her last term as chancellor, but Trump shouldn't expect to be rid of this inconvenient negotiation partner anytime soon.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.