How Merkel Put Down the Bavarian Rebellion

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The split within the German center-right has been patched up, but the conventional view is that Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged weakened. Don’t believe it: Though the defused conflict will fuel political debate for weeks to come, Merkel has put down an attempted populist rebellion without sacrificing much more than time and nerve cells. The real losers from this battle, though, are the migrants.

The fight between Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, for 70 years the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and part of the current governing coalition, had been over so-called secondary migration, described by CSU leaders as “asylum tourism.” Some asylum seekers whose applications are being processed in the European countries where they initially landed, such as Greece and Italy, travel to wealthier Germany to seek a better life. Seehofer wanted to push them back at the German borders, a practice that threatened to undermine free travel in the European Union and put Germany at odds with its EU partners. Merkel opposed the move, but firing Seehofer could blow up the coalition.

After weeks of arguing that grew increasingly personal the parties finally reached a compromise late on Monday. It’s a single sheet of paper, just enough for use as a fig leaf so the CSU could cover up the failure of its bid to unseat or subjugate Merkel. 

The deal claims to establish “a new border regime” with Austria that will allow Germany to stop incoming asylum seekers registered in other EU countries. They are to be put in “transition centers,” from which they would be sent back to the countries responsible for them, but only on the basis of agreements with these countries. Absent such agreements, Germany is to make a deal with Austria on turning them back.

None of this is workable. The German border is so porous that there’s no way to establish effective controls. Police could check cars on the three autobahns from Austria, creating huge lines of unhappy CSU voters, but they can’t set up checkpoints on hundreds of country roads. Sending asylum seekers back from the “transit centers” will require deals with all first arrival countries, including reluctant Italy. Before they agree, the Italians will insist that its EU neighbors follow through on a commitment, made last weekend, to build facilities on their own territory for some of Italy’s asylum seekers. That could take months. Meanwhile, there’s no reason for refugee-unfriendly Austria to accept anyone Germany might want to push back.

A deal is a deal though, and it looks cruel to asylum seekers. Leftist parties are already complaining loudly about a new brand of detention camp.

Despite Seehofer’s claims, “secondary migration” is a non-issue. Between January and the end of May, Germany sent back some 4,100 asylum seekers to other EU countries. If effective border controls could be established, that number would probably grow, but not dramatically. It’s a much bigger problem that Germany still can’t master the deportation of rejected asylum seekers. At the end of 2016, there were 207,484 people subject to deportation in Germany. On April 30, 2018, there were 232,838, most of them with a “tolerated” status; 61,254 were supposed to be in line for immediate deportation, but since only 23,966 people were deported last year, it’s likely that most of them will stick around.

Any principled fight would have been about that, not about “secondary migration.” Instead, Seehofer and his ally, Bavarian prime minister Markus Soeder, picked an issue that they thought would resonate with Bavarian voters, who’d see the CSU as protectors of the border, and simultaneously make Merkel look weak in the EU and domestically. Improving the party’s performance in the Bavarian state election in October was the goal. A putsch against the chancellor, whom Seehofer had never liked, was a secondary objective.

The CSU failed on both counts. Its crusade failed to have a noticeable effect on the polls in Bavaria. And despite the growing influence of anti-immigrant parties in the EU, last last month Merkel negotiated a plan to reduce immigration without breaking up the Schengen passport-free area. After that, most Germans wanted the CSU to give in. The CDU, quite in keeping with the polls, stood behind Merkel. 

Despite what’s been happening lately in the U.S., the U.K. and Italy, German voters still value rationality and responsibility. Seehofer would have done his party no favors by resigning in a funk or breaking up the governing coalition. The party leadership backpedaled and convinced Seehofer to compromise. 

The Bavarian putsch was put down without a single shot. Seehofer and Soeder are likely still trying to understand what it was that Merkel did to them and how she did it.

Months of further arguments about asylum policy still lie ahead. Again and again, panicky German commentators will declare that Merkel is in danger of falling and English-language commentators will pick up the vibes with no small amount of schadenfreude. But it’s not Merkel, a true black belt in the art of the deal, that anyone should worry about. It’s the immigrants, who are people, not political footballs.

Politicians have now agreed to set up holding camps in Africa, reception facilities throughout the EU and, most recently, the “transition centers” at the German border. That detention dominates all the plans is a sign of an intellectual bankruptcy that is far more dangerous in the long run than half-cocked challenges to Merkel’s authority. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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