World News

German Hard-Liners Want to Close Borders, Threatening Merkel Coalition

Posted June 15, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — The populist surge that has left Hungary, Austria and Italy threatening to close their borders to migrants has now spread to Germany, where it could even bring down Chancellor Angela Merkel and further unhinge Europe Union’s cohesion and stability.

In recent days, Merkel has faced an increasingly virulent mutiny over the issue, which threatens to fracture her governing coalition as early as next week.

The mutiny is led by her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, a former Bavarian premier with a towering stature and plenty of beer tent charisma, who sounds more in line with the nativist forces shaping politics in neighboring countries than with his own boss.

His region found itself on the front line of the refugee crisis in 2015, when Merkel opened the borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants who poured into Bavaria. He has long been an outspoken critic of her decision, and in recent days the two leaders have been locked in a standoff.

Like Europe’s more hard-line politicians on the right, Seehofer wants Germany to turn back at the border migrants who have no papers or who are already registered in another European country.

Merkel has blocked the proposal because it would defy Europe’s open-border agreement; place an even greater burden on southern European countries, often the first ones to register migrants; and risk widening the already gaping divisions in the European Union.

The tensions in the bloc were on full display this week, when Italy’s new hard-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, turned away a rescue ship with more than 600 African migrants, threatening to leave them on the doorstep of his European neighbors, until Spain agreed to let them in.

Because of its troubled history and Merkel’s welcoming stance in 2015, Germany seemed somewhat more immune than other countries to the populist wave washing over Europe.

The Bavarian revolt, coming as the region is preparing for state elections in October, has now provided a powerful glimpse of the groundswell of nativist anger that is building even in the richest parts of Europe’s richest country.

“The Bavarian conservatives are closing ranks with Europe’s populists,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “This is serious. It’s pure populism.”

The decision to open Germany’s borders to more than 1.4 million migrants has politically haunted the chancellor. Opposition to the decision buoyed the far-right in elections last year, leaving a weakened Merkel to struggle for six months to form a governing coalition.

Part of the price for the support of the conservative, Bavaria-based Christian Social Union was having Seehofer in the powerful position he now holds.

Tension between the two leaders have steadily built. In March, Seehofer stirred controversy when he declared that “Islam does not belong to Germany,” only to be contradicted by Merkel.

Merkel wants to find a European solution to the migration issue at a summit meeting of the 28-country bloc in two weeks. “It is an issue that we must resolve at a European level,” Merkel said this week. “That is very important to me.”

But Seehofer is not budging. The far-right Alternative for Germany (known by its German initials AfD) has been expanding its support in Bavaria, threatening the stronghold of Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, which now risks losing its absolute majority for only the second time in half a century.

He and his party have responded by veering sharply to the right: The proposal to turn back migrants at the border is reminiscent of one AfD made late last year.

In a spectacular gesture of defiance, Seehofer has given Merkel an ultimatum: If she does not agree to the measure, he will carry it out against her will.

The implication is that the border police in Bavaria, the main gateway into Germany for migrants, could start turning them back at the border as early as next week.

It is the most direct challenge to Merkel’s authority yet — and to the values her chancellorship has embodied.

For Seehofer, turning migrants back at the border has become a symbol of re-establishing control. For Merkel, keeping the border open is the last remaining symbol of her liberal migration policy.

“Asylum tourism must end,” said Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier, using language frequently used by populists to describe the influx of refugees. His government has recently passed a hard-line police reform measure that restricts civil liberties, and has floated the idea of a Bavarian border force — although Bavaria borders only fellow European Union member states.

“We have to consider our own people, not always focus on the whole of Europe,” Söder said.

Seehofer, who reportedly does not vacation abroad, could not agree more. As interior minister, he is also “heimat minister,” a position he created in Bavaria five years ago and now wants to export to the whole country. Heimat is a fuzzy but evocative German term roughly meaning home, identity and belonging.

And he has been busy seeking like-minded allies elsewhere in Europe, where they are more and more of them.

On Wednesday, he skipped a meeting with Merkel to meet an outspoken critic of hers instead: Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, who was elected last year on a pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration and leads a coalition with the far-right.

During a joint news conference, Kurz spoke of the need for “an axis of the willing” in the fight against illegal migration, a turn of phrase, some commentators pointed out, that was once used by Benito Mussolini to describe the alliance between Italy and Germany.

As if on cue, Seehofer let slip that he had spoken to his Italian counterpart, Salvini, to forge an alliance on border security among Berlin, Vienna and Rome.

Just a few days earlier, Salvini had turned away two migrant ships: “The nice life is over for illegal migrants,” he said recently. “They can pack their bags.”

Seehofer is also a personal friend of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister, whom he has hosted several times in Bavaria. When Orban won re-election in April, Seehofer warmly congratulated him.

“Nothing is more powerful a validation than success at the ballot,” he had commented, despite election observers’ talk about a “climate of intimidation,” and warned the European Union not to be “arrogant and patronizing.”

The son of a builder, who rose through the party ranks in Bavaria, Seehofer has unapologetically embraced populism: “I will not apologize for doing politics for the people,” he once remarked. Always on opposite ends of the conservative spectrum, Seehofer, 68, and Merkel, 63, nevertheless share a long and checkered history.

In 2007, when Seehofer was a junior minister in her first government, it emerged that he had fathered a child out of marriage. The news media turned a harsh glare on Seehofer, a proud Catholic who has always had a cross on the wall of his ministerial office, but Merkel stood by him.

That has not stopped him from challenging the chancellor repeatedly. In October 2015, weeks after Merkel opened the border, Seehofer threatened to take her before the constitutional court if she did not limit the number of migrants.

Last fall, he was lobbying for an upper limit of 200,000 asylum-seekers per year. Merkel pointed out that a hard limit was unconstitutional.

There is no obvious way out of their current showdown, which made for a tense and turbulent week in Berlin.

On Tuesday, Seehofer was scheduled to announce his 63-point “master plan,” but canceled at the last minute because he and Merkel could not agree.

On Wednesday, they met until late into the night, but parted with no agreement.

On Thursday, a raucous parliamentary session had to be adjourned to give the two conservative groups time to talk between themselves.

By the end of the week, Merkel had received the support of most, though not all, senior members in her own party. Former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was hastily appointed as a mediator.

On Monday, Bavaria’s conservatives are expected to confirm whether Seehofer will, indeed, defy Merkel.

The survival of Merkel’s coalition is at stake. “It is possible that we won’t have a government next week,” Römmele said. “I’d say it’s 50-50.”