Berlin (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel was fighting Tuesday to stamp out the first major row within her uneasy coalition, as disputes over her refugee policy returned to haunt her while she negotiates a broad EU asylum deal.
The discord within her conservative bloc burst into the open on Monday when hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of Merkel’s Bavarian allies CSU, hastily cancelled the presentation of his tough new “masterplan” on immigration.
The interior ministry said in a short statement that the unveiling of the plan had been pushed back indefinitely, acknowledging that “several points still need to be agreed”.
Merkel has made clear she rejects a plan to turn back at German borders any asylum-seeker already registered in another EU country, arguing that her country shouldn’t go it alone while Europe searches for a common policy.
Seehofer, the former premier of conservative Bavaria state, has long been one of the fiercest critics of Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders at the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.
Highlighting the chasm, Seehofer invited to Berlin Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who on Monday flatly refused to allow a rescue vessel carrying hundreds of migrants to dock.
Salvini and Seehofer in a phone call were in “full harmony on security and immigration policies” and agreed that the EU must “not waste any more time” and protect its external borders, said the interior ministry in Rome.
Seehofer, citing scheduling difficulties, will also stay away from a chancellery “integration summit” Wednesday for volunteers, aid workers and officials helping refugees settle in Germany — a move the opposition Greens party labelled an “affront” to all involved.
– ‘They must be turned back’ –
The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers, many fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq, since 2015 has deeply divided Germany and reshaped the party political landscape.
Voters handed Merkel her worst-ever score in September’s elections as well as giving the far-right AfD seats for the first time in the Bundestag.
With a crucial state election in Bavaria coming up in October, Seehofer and his Christian Social Union party are anxious to stop the haemorrhage of support to the anti-migrant and Islamophobic AfD.
Standing his ground late Monday in the dispute, Seehofer stressed that all points of his plan “are in my view necessary in order to restore control and order in Germany”.
He added that he would not “publish a half-baked plan with lazy compromises”.
The CSU’s honorary chairman Edmund Stoiber called Seehofer’s plan a non-negotiable “fateful question” for the CSU that went to the core of what it stands for and would reflect “the majority will of the population”.
Underlining what is at stake, broadcaster Deutschlandfunk said if no deal is found, Seehofer’s choice “would be resignation or dismissal”, spelling “the end of the coalition”.
Three years after the migration crisis erupted, the inflow has slowed dramatically but the coalition is still bickering over what would be a sustainable solution.
Within Merkel’s CDU party too, some are openly championing Seehofer’s vision, including Saxony state premier Michael Kretschmer.
“Of course they must be turned back at the border,” he said. “That’s why we have police at the border and it is right to have them there.”
– ‘Wait for reform’ –
For the chancellor, the only sustainable solution would be a Europe-wide agreement — a point she will likely push when she meets later Tuesday with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country would be hardest hit if Germany were to close its doors.
Ironically though, Kurz shares Seehofer’s criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy and is due to meet the interior minister on Wednesday.
Merkel has the backing for now of the third party in her coalition, the Social Democratic Party. It too rejects stepping up border controls of asylum seekers, which it says goes against the spirit of the Schengen passport-free zone.
But demands from the populist and far-right leaning forces in Italy, Austria and elsewhere are complicating Merkel’s push for EU solidarity in dealing with immigration issues, an issue to be covered at a June 28-29 summit.
With Austria taking over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, Merkel is hoping to convince Kurz to sign up to a system of “flexible solidarity” and help put in place an effective European border police.