Bavarian Test Allies Challenge Merkel on Security

In the aftermath of the Berlin attacks, the troublesome Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats is upping the pressure. The CSU wants her to abandon her refugee policy and won't back a centralization of security services. It also wants a tougher approach to euro-zone debt.
Quelle: dpa
If Chancellor Merkel hoped her Bavarian colleague Horst Seehofer would fall into line this year, she has been mistaken.
(Source: dpa)

After a troublesome relationship throughout 2016, this was the year that Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Bavarian sister party were supposed to come together – just in time to help Ms. Merkel's conservatives win the new round of federal elections this fall. The Berlin Christmas market attacks may have put a stop to that.

Instead, the Christian Social Union is steadfastly insisting on a cap to refugee numbers and has categorically rejected calls by Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, to centralize the country’s regionally fragmented security system.

Horst Seehofer, the fiercely independent leader of the CSU and one of the toughest critics of Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, has also sowed doubts over whether a planned “reconciliation summit” with the chancellor in February will happen.

“We still need to discuss some things and then we will go into the election together,” Mr. Seehofer said Wednesday ahead of the CSU's annual January retreat for policy consultations. The meeting was still planned but “not finalized in terms of program or content."

It was the latest in a long line of thinly veiled warnings from Mr. Seehofer, who knows Ms. Merkel needs his support to win a fourth term as chancellor.

By agreeing, Ms. Merkel would effectively be admitting that her policy was wrong

The Bavarian premier, to the political right of the chancellor on a host of issues, is using that leverage to apply what pressure he can to tighten rules on refugees and a host of other issues. The groundwork for the party's own independent platform is being laid this week at its annual conference in the picturesque former monastery of Seeon near Lake Chiemsee.

All of this puts Ms. Merkel and her own party – which represents conservatives in all German states except Bavaria – in an awkward situation and causing consternation among conservative parliamentarians. A leaked confidential letter from CDU-CSU parliamentarians is demanding an end to the internal feud.

Ms. Merkel has so far refused to bow to the CSU’s demand for an upper limit of 200,000 refugees per year. Since the start of 2015, about 1.1 million asylum-seekers have been allowed into Germany.

The sharp decline in refugee numbers to slightly more than 300,000 in 2016 from 890,000 in 2015, thanks largely to the E.U.’s deal with Turkey to curb illegal migration across the Aegean Sea to Greece, had eased tensions between the CSU and Ms. Merkel’s party.

But the atrocity in Berlin last month and several attacks carried out by refugees in July, including a suicide bombing outside a music festival in the southern city of Ansbach, have fuelled calls in the CSU to send a clear signal to voters in the form of a cap on refugee numbers.

It’s unlikely to get its way. By agreeing, Ms. Merkel would effectively be admitting that her policy was wrong, which would weaken her standing in the election.

And refugees aren't the only issue where the two parties are at odds this year. Bavaria fiercely guards its considerable regional powers and prides itself on having one of the country’s lowest crime rates. So it comes as no surprise that the CSU has scoffed at a plan by Mr. de Maizière to scrap the regional agencies of the domestic intelligence service, called the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and beef up the power of the national agency.

The reform proposals came in response to the failure of security authorities to prevent the December 19 attack on the Berlin Christmas market by Tunisian asylum-seeker Anis Amri, who had been on a terrorism watch list and was due to be deported. The failure to share intelligence, within Germany and within Europe, has been blamed for failing to stop the attack before it happened.

Germany's states have already loudly opposed the move to federalize security, and Bavaria's CSU looks like it might lead the way: “I can only tell you: a dissolution of the Bavarian regional office for the protection of the constitution will never happen,” said Mr. Seehofer.

The CSU, which has fiercely opposed programs to relieve Greece of its debt burden, also wants to make it easier for countries to leave the 19-nation currency bloc.

The CSU has also drafted a tough new set of proposals for E.U. policy – ideas that would likely be rejected by other E.U. member states if they ever did become policy in Berlin.

According to a paper by CSU lawmakers, the measures include the introduction of “accountability bonds.” The idea is for higher-risk, higher-interest government bonds to be issued by countries whose debt and deficit levels don’t comply with E.U. rules.

The new form of debt would be excluded from government bond purchases by the European Central Bank and they would stop being serviced if a country has to apply for a rescue under the E.U.’s European Stability Mechanism bailout program, or if its debt exceeded 120 percent of its gross domestic product. Such bonds would be an incentive for countries to adhere to fiscal limits.

The CSU, which has fiercely opposed programs to relieve Greece of its debt burden, also wants to make it easier for countries to leave the 19-nation currency bloc. It's calling for the introduction of an orderly process to restructure government debt “in combination with rules on a withdrawal from the euro zone.”

The one area where Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehoder do largely agree seems to be on the terms of a Brexit.  The CSU agrees with Berlin's long-held line that Britain can only retain access to the E.U.’s single market if it continues to adhere to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.

But the CSU lawmakers also warn against taking an overly tough stance. “It can’t be in our interest to sacrifice cooperation on the altar of abstract principles and thereby to endanger the German economy and jobs,” said the paper.


Daniel Delhaes is a correspondent covering politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Jan Hildebrand of Handelsblatt contributed to this story. To contact the author:

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