Merkel's 'open door' policy could spell the end of the German Chancellor

DEU121121AA001BERLIN – Three years after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open her nation's borders to refugees, the policy that's come to define her political career appears poised to end it.

But the threat comes from an unlikely source: Merkel's conservative, Bavaria-based sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Spearheaded by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, the party has given Merkel two weeks to develop a plan with European Union partners to reform asylum the bloc’s policies or else Seehofer and Söder would unilaterally implement a policy to turn away asylum seekers at the German border, likely bringing an end to Merkel's already fragile centrist coalition just three months after its inauguration.

That would not only spell the end for Merkel, Europe's longest-serving leader, but would also recast the future of the European Union, where eastern members have grown increasingly hostile to Brussels’ refugee policies.

"It would mean that the positions on the fringes of the European Union in Eastern and Central Europe to not accept any refugees will become stronger, which would be a potential end to German-led European policy and German-led refugee policy as we know it," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin. "It's like domino theory in a way if the coalition falls apart: first one stone falls, then another and another."

The Christian Social Union has been vehemently against Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which ignored EU regulations that require refugees to undergo the asylum process in their first country of arrival. Her decision to allow unrestricted travel for asylum seekers has brought more than 1 million newcomers, predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa, to Germany, overwhelming authorities and creating a cultural backlash.

The move rankled many Germans.

Last year, the right-wing, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, entered the German parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote, effectively tripling their support from 2013’s poll when they failed to enter parliament.

Meanwhile, on the heels of a series of mess-ups by the government – including a terror attack in December 2016 at the hands of a migrant that should have been deported and the recent discovery that authorities had botched thousands of asylum applications in the city-state of Bremen – the AfD has continued to rise in the polls.

To staunch support for the AfD, Merkel and her centrist government have walked back on the open-door policy in some respects, increasing deportations, allowing only limited migration of refugees’ families and forming bilateral deals with outside partners like Turkey to halt the flow of migrants into the country. Such actions have greatly decreased the number of migrants coming to Germany.

But two weeks ago, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wanted to take German immigration policies even further by beefing up border security and reinstating the European regulations mandating that refugees must remain in the country where they were registered.

Merkel accepted the border moves but rejected reinstating the EU policies. Instead, she called for measures that would create a unified European asylum policy to replace country-by-country actions.

“I’m deeply convinced whenever we talk about the dangers of the European Union, that it’s first and foremost about the foreign policy polyphony that we have, and secondly, that we still don’t have a common strategy to answer the question of mastering migration,” Chancellor Merkel said June 10 on the political talk show Anne Will. “If Europe doesn’t accomplish that, then Europe is in danger.”

Instead of getting in line with the chancellor, leaders of her sister party have dug in their heels.

If she tries to stop the interior minister and his CSU allies, they’ll end the coalition, Seehofer told the German daily Passauer Neue Presse in an June 21 interview.

“If you dismiss a minister who only cares about the safety and order of his country, that would be unprecedented,” Seehofer said. “I am chairman of the CSU, one of three parties in this coalition, and I act with full backing of my party. If the person in the chancellery is dissatisfied with the work of the federal minister of the interior, then she should end the coalition.”

The threat could force Merkel to curb her divisive refugee policies ahead of the Christian Social Union’s tough battle against the AfD in regional elections in Bavaria in October, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Seehofer is trying to kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “The CSU is under enormous pressure in Bavaria, and it’s in his own interest to say, ‘I’m the strong Bavarian guy in Berlin’.”

Merkel has reacted by working some of the politicking for which she’s known in a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron June 20. The chancellor agreed to the French president’s controversial plans to erect a common Eurozone budget, an obvious concession to the president in order to get his support for a revamped asylum policy at upcoming migration summits in Brussels both this weekend and next.

But it will be a tough task with nations like Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria, now all led by right-wing, anti-immigrant forces bent at bucking a Merkel-led bloc and stopping refugees at all costs.

“She’s trying to practice the same magic and come to a compromise. She has to, or else she’ll lose all support,” said Boehnke. “It will be a hard task this time around. She has to acknowledge that the populists are very successful in stimulating this atmosphere that we have to urgently do something about migration.”

If Merkel isn’t able to stanch those forces and make progress, “then the coalition will end,” Neugebauer added.

That would not only provide more footing for the AfD to gain ground by attacking Merkel and her coalition partners as incompetent. It would also lend weight to those forces within the European Union that have sought to dismantle the liberal, German-led status quo within the block.

“That would be a danger for the German democracy and everything that stands behind it if she’s not able to implement something,” Neugebauer said.

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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