By Harald Malmgren
Next week the European Union will hold a key summit.
But that summit is being defined by and overshadowed by the political changes throughout key European states.
The crisis in Germany is especially central to the fate of the summit.
In late May and in the early days of June Chancellor Merkel had been preparing for the scheduled annual EU Summit. One of her highest priorities was to find consensus among EU members on the rules for treatment of refugees, especially those fleeing from Syria and its Middle East neighbors. A wave of populism focused on in alleged social and criminal disruptions imposed by Merkel’s open borders policy.
Shocking not only Germany, but virtually all capitals of the European Union, Merkel’s authority was challenged by a key member of her own political base, Interior Minister Horst Seehoffer.
Suddenly, she was at risk of a political clash from within her own political base that might require a vote of confidence. It is not evident how such a vote would go at this moment when many politicians are feeling growing pressures to alter Germany’s immigration policies. If “no confidence” would be the result, Merkel faced the possibility that she might be asked to step down, or pressure might build for a new election in which case she would not be chosen as the leader for the CDU into new elections.
Prior to the election Seehofer had been head of the CSU and political leader of Bavaria. After many weeks of negotiations between the SDP and Merkel, a “Grand Coalition’s own partnership of the CDU and CSU was agreed. In the subsequent bargaining over who was to be a Minister in the new cabinet, Seehofer pressed to be appointed Interior Minister. Seehofer was well aware that post gave authority over regulation of the nation’s borders, including management and enforcement of the nation’s borders and immigration laws.
Merkel’s personal political power had already taken a hit by a significant drop in seats won by her CDU in the elections. In the aftermath of decline of the CDU and rise of the ultra-nationalist AfD, CDU party members began to discuss the initiation of a process to choose a new party leader who might lead the CDU into the next German election.
Technically the next election was scheduled to be held in 2021. Given already evident rivalries within the CDU and CSU, and quietly growing voter support for different actions on immigration and a harder stance on basic German interests, an election might become necessary before 2021. The consensus appeared to be that Merkel should not lead the party into the next election. However, choosing a successor should be done with care. In effect, Chancellor Merkel now found herself with a limited “use by date”, with the exact date not yet agreed.
Formation of the new cabinet posed yet another shock for Merkel. The opposition SDP insisted that they would not join a coalition unless they could have the Ministry of Finance. Merkel’s ultimate political backstop, some might say the foundation of all of her political power, had been Wolfgang Schaueble throughout the EU and Euro Area crises for a decade.
At one time in the past, it had been expected that Schaueble would have been made Chancellor, but that path was broken by a CDU party funding scandal and an attempted assassination on him that resulted in lifetime damage to his physical mobility. Ultimately, whenever Merkel needed to collect vote in a Bundestag policy dispute, it was Schaueble who delivered her the necessary votes.
From the perspective of German politicians, Merkel’s loss of the Finance Ministry coupled with her loss of Schaueble’s political power in the cabinet further weakened her ability to submit Berlin politics to her will.
By late May this year, Seehofer calculated Merkel was politically vulnerable in her own CDU base, and her policies on immigration had become a divisive issue not only in Germany but throughout the EU. The CSU was becoming vulnerable unhappiness of Bavarian voters with Merkel’s defiant stance against any changes in policies regarding passage of refugees through Bavaria.
Thus, Seehofer chose to confront Merkel with a list of demands for changes in her immigration policies, including distinguishing treatment of immigrants who were first-time entrants to Germany from migrants who had already entered the EU through a different port of entry. This would require reestablishment of border posts. Agreements with neighboring countries about holding back some classes of immigrants nearby, such as in Turkey or the Balkans, should be reconsidered.
In effect, Seehofer was proposing changes in Schengen EU freedom of movement.
Merkel defiantly refused to yield to Seehofer’s demands. In response, Seehofer warned he would proceed in 2 weeks to introduce his own new regulations under the legal authority in his role as Interior Minister.
Merkel found herself in a trap that had been carefully laid. If she fired Seehofer odds were high the coalition would break down and new elections might be called. In that case, she would likely not be chosen to lead the CDU into competition, and effectively she would no longer be Chancellor.
If she yielded, that would demonstrate that her power had dramatically diminished, her influence inside Germany and with the rest of Europe would be seriously impaired. Seehofer is exploiting his anti-refugee stance in Bavaria to help revitalize the CSU, and try to limit voter exits from the CSU to the AfD, a party which is even more aggressively in favor of shutting down immigration.
In the EU’s past there have been times of deep divisions, but when such strong divisions occurred it was German political and diplomatic skill, supported by Germany’s strong financial position, that prevailed and set the basis for continuation of further EU integration. It was always widely recognized that only Germany had sufficient financial resources to prop up the EU or the Euro area in times of distress.
With German politics now becoming seriously fragmented and in some kind of process of reconfiguration, there is no single leader or handful of strong politicians in Berlin to devise and execute a common German stance on Europe.
It is not yet clear what will happen to the traditional parties, but it is quite possible that a there will be a convergence of political will around a more nationalistic stance, seeking what is best for Germany, with less concern for the troubles of Germany’s neighbors.
The featured photo: Horst Seehofer (CSU) in Berlin. Der Spiegel.