German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, in open revolt against Chancellor Angela Merkel over immigration, has gone behind her back by seeking an unofficial alliance with Austria and Italy to stop Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policy.
Mr. Seehofer told reporters after a meeting with Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz in Berlin on Wednesday that he had telephoned with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to agree cooperation between Italy, Austria and Germany on immigration.
Mr. Kurz said: “In our opinion we need an axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration.”
This choice of words raised a few eyebrows, as a previous “Axis” between those three countries carries much darker historical undertones, as does former US President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. But the Austrian chancellor didn’t seem to care.
An “axis of the willing” would inevitably be seen as an anti-Merkel alliance. Mr. Salvini, who heads the far-right League, attacked Ms. Merkel during Italy’s recent election campaign and demonstrated his harsh stance on immigration by refusing to let a rescue boat with more than 600 migrants dock in the country.
Mr. Salvini stands for pretty much everything Ms. Merkel opposes: unilateral national action and a merciless approach to asylum-seekers. “The good life is over for the illegals, they’re going to have to pack their bags,” he said recently.
And on top of a new cross-border alliance against her, Ms. Merkel is facing enough domestic troubles as defiant conservatives are pressuring her into toughening her immigration policy by means fair and foul.
Mr. Seehofer, whose right-wing Christian Social Union is trying to woo sympathizers of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) ahead of a regional election in the CSU’s home state of Bavaria in October, has drafted a package of measures to curb the number of asylum-seekers coming to Germany.
They include turning away refugees at the border if they have already registered in another EU country — a step that Ms. Merkel rejected on Monday because it would amount to a reversal of her open-border policy and undermine her efforts to find a pan-European agreement on how to deal with refugees. The chancellor’s veto was the spark that reignited the simmering asylum dispute with her Bavarian ally.
The two held late-night crisis talks on Wednesday with Markus Söder, Mr. Seehofer’s successor as Bavarian premier, and with Hesse state premier Volker Bouffier, a senior figure of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who is running for re-election in the fall.
However, the two-and-a-half-hour talks failed to deliver a breakthrough. Ms. Merkel did compromise with the CSU’s plan to turn away asylum seekers at the border, but she also proposed this to be first agreed bilaterally with other European countries during the upcoming EU summit later this month, in order to avoid unilateral decisions from Berlin that could further jeopardize Europe’s fragile unity. “It makes sense to wait two more weeks until the summit to find solutions jointly with partner countries,” she said.
For the Bavarians, however, that offer wasn’t enough. Mr. Söder said on Thursday that hoping to reach bilateral deals so soon was unrealistic. “We don’t believe that in two weeks it will be possible to achieve something that has been impossible for three years,” he said. The hawkish Bavarian leader added that instead, creating a fait accompli as soon as possible might force the rest of the EU to adopt a common solution at last.
Schäuble to the rescue
An unbending CSU is instead looking into ways to strong-arm Ms. Merkel’s CDU into adopting its proposed immigration plan in the days ahead. The Bavarians are mulling submitting it to a vote within the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag on Friday, as they believe a majority of Ms. Merkel’s CDU lawmakers would side with them. They were probably looking at a survey tabloid Bild published on Thursday. The country’s most-read daily asked all 246 conservative lawmakers in the Bundestag whether they sided with Ms. Merkel or with the Bavarians. Of the 70 who answered, just three backed the chancellor. But that was before she made her compromise on Wednesday night.
On Thursday, CDU lawmakers abruptly interrupted a parliamentary session to hold a group meeting on Ms. Merkel’s latest offer. It turns out that, after Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, who long served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister, gave a “moving” speech on the future of Europe, the Christian Democrats overwhelmingly endorsed their leader’s proposal after all.
The Bavarians are still digging in their heels, though. The CSU announced that it will make its next move known after an internal summit scheduled for Monday. Some are saying that Mr. Seehofer could disobey the chancellor, his boss, and enforce his plan. The Bavarian party could also break with its sister party, the CDU, as a last resort — but this highly unusual move in Germany's post-war history could topple the chancellor and plunge the country into a political crisis.
Or Mr. Seehofer still has his axis with Mr. Kurz and Mr. Salvini to fall back on. In the long run, the trio may indeed find a way to defeat a weakened Ms. Merkel.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt political correspondents Daniel Delhaes, Jan Hildebrand, Moritz Koch as well as Berlin bureau chief Thomas Sigmund also contributed reporting. To reach the authors: [email protected]