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Merkel’s government faces internal rebellion over immigration in Germany
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel was locked in a showdown with renegade members of her own government on Monday as the future of Europe’s asylum system and her own 13-year run in power hung in the balance.
The standoff pitted Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) against its more hard-line Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The latter controls the powerful Interior Ministry and was threatening Monday to use that authority to block asylum seekers who have registered in another European country from entering Germany.
Merkel, who opened the country to more than a million people fleeing war, oppression and poverty in 2015 and 2016, vehemently opposes such a move and is pressing for a Europe-wide solution to the continent’s continued struggles with migration.
At issue Monday was whether the CSU would give her time to try to reach such a deal.
Top CSU leaders huddled Monday morning in the party’s home base of Munich. The Bild newspaper reported that they would approve plans for Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the longtime party leader, to seal the borders to previously registered migrants, but would leave it to him to decide on the timing.
Should Seehofer opt to institute border controls immediately, it would force Merkel to make a fateful choice: Acquiesce and emerge a dramatically weakened leader, or fire Seehofer and risk a break with the CSU that could bring her government crashing down.
But there were indications that Seehofer plans to give her more time and that a compromise could be in the offing
“It is not in the CSU’s interest to topple the chancellor, to dissolve the CDU-CSU union or to break up the coalition,” Seehofer told Bild in remarks published Sunday. “We just want to finally have a sustainable solution to send refugees back to the borders.”
In a column for in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, meanwhile, Seehofer wrote: “It is essential that the [European Union] summit takes a decision at the end of June. The situation is serious but still solvable.”
The reference to the summit is significant; Merkel has indicated she plans to push her fellow European leaders for a new approach to asylum when they meet late next week. CSU leaders had previously been dismissive of her chances to reach agreement there, given that the issue has bedeviled the continent for the past three years, with no resolution in sight.
Even if Merkel is given more time, it may amount to a temporary reprieve.
Migration, always a fraught political issue for Europe, has become even more sensitive in recent weeks. The new populist government in Italy has barred rescue ships from making landfall in the country’s ports, forcing them to dock elsewhere.
Austria, governed by a center-right and far-right coalition, has also vowed to take a much tougher stand.
Last week, during a visit to Berlin, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced a new “axis of the willing against illegal migration,” which he said would feature Germany, Italy and his own country. But pointedly, Kurz announced the plan with Seehofer, not Merkel, standing by his side.
The calls for tougher policies have come even though the number of people reaching European shores in search of protection has declined. About 700,000 people sought asylum in E.U. countries last year, down 44 percent from 2016, according to figures released Monday by the European Asylum Support Agency.
Germany had the most asylum seekers of any European nation, with more than 200,000.
Seehofer and Merkel lead parties that have allied with each other for decades and that have formed the basis for successive Merkel governments since she first came to power in 2005.
But the veteran politicians have often clashed. During the height of the refugee crisis, Seehofer was sharply critical of Merkel’s open-door policy, which involved accepting asylum seekers even after they had passed through other E.U. states.
After Merkel bowed to pressure from the CSU and made Seehofer her interior minister this spring, he told Bild: “Islam does not belong to Germany. Germany is characterized by Christianity.”
Merkel quickly made clear that she disagreed.
Some political analysts have speculated that the CSU manufactured the showdown with Merkel in an attempt to mobilize right-wing voters ahead of critical Bavarian state elections in October. While the CSU is widely expected to win that vote, it faces a strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.
But even if the crisis is part theater, it also represents a real threat to Merkel’s hold on power, which has steadily weakened since the CDU-CSU alliance underperformed in elections last September.
Eurasia Group analyst Charles Lichfield on Monday put the chances of Merkel losing power as a result of the dust-up with the CSU at 25 percent.
“Political obituaries for Chancellor Angela Merkel tend to be premature,” Lichfield wrote. “But the legacy of the 2015 migration crisis could yet force her sudden demise over the next two weeks.”
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.
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