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Immigration deal saves German government, points to European future

Angela Merkel has held her fragile government together and found a compromise with rebels on immigration policy. Will it last?

Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/AP
Germany Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (l.) talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a debate of the Bundestag in Berlin on July 5.

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The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just got herself out of a scrape. A week or so ago it seemed her coalition government would collapse because of a rebellion by her conservative  coalition partner, a Bavarian party demanding a hard-line policy towards immigrants. But she has managed both to strike a compromise at home, and to do some deals with neighboring countries regarding the fate of asylum seekers. That has saved her skin, for the time being. But the compromise with her partners in government will depend on more deals with governments to take back asylum seekers that Germany doesn’t let in. Key will be Italy and Austria – both of which recently elected strongly anti-immigrant governments. Ms. Merkel was forced to take a tougher line than she would have liked in order to keep her government afloat, but her dilemma, and her solution, would seem to augur similar outcomes in Europe as a whole. The welcome mat for immigrants has been rolled up.

The fragile, three-party coalition that has ruled Germany since March has emerged bruised but intact – for the time being – from two weeks of turmoil over the issue of immigration. But its status remains precarious – as does that of the European Union, which depends on Germany's stability to unite the increasingly fractious bloc.

How did the German government suddenly reach a crisis?

Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the head of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), faced down a rebellion by her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, head of the CDU’s long-time Bavarian sister party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), who demanded tougher action against migrants. He had threatened to resign, bringing the young government down.

Mr. Seehofer wanted German border guards to automatically turn back any migrant who had previously registered in another country. Ms. Merkel, who welcomed nearly a million asylum seekers in 2015, refused.

In a compromise with both the CSU to her right, and with her other coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) to her left, Merkel has agreed to speed up procedures at border police stations to send back asylum seekers who seek entry to Germany even though they have previously sought protection elsewhere.

No more than five such migrants a day showed up last year at the Austrian-German border, trying to get into Bavaria, according to Bavarian government figures. But Seehofer’s party is facing a stiff challenge in upcoming regional elections from the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and he appears to have chosen immigration as a fertile issue for votes.

Seehofer has agreed to stay in the cabinet even though the compromise he signed falls far short of his earlier demands. Merkel has accepted border checks that she had warned would lead to a cascade of similar moves by neighboring countries, destroying the passport-free travel area that includes 26 European nations. The SPD is happy to have killed the initial idea of setting up “transit camps” on the border, redolent of Germany’s Nazi past, and ensured that migrants will be processed within 48 hours in regular police stations.

All three parties agreed to pass new, comprehensive immigration legislation by the end of the year.

So there’s a deal. Is it a done deal?

Not exactly. The long-term success of the new arrangement hinges on Germany’s ability to secure bilateral deals with other countries. Merkel had insisted that Germany could not take the sort of unilateral measures that Seehofer had insisted on, but that Berlin must coordinate its policies with its European partners.

That means securing commitments from the countries where migrants have already applied for asylum that they will take them back if they are detained in Germany.

The chancellor returned from a European Union summit in Brussels last week saying she had won agreement from 14 European countries which had expressed their willingness, at least in principle, to do that. Deals with Spain and Greece were among the most notable. But now it’s a matter of convincing Austria and Italy – no easy task, since both countries’ governments were elected on promises to curb migration.

So far, Rome has bristled at the notion of taking back the refugees whom it never wanted in the first place, and whom the new anti-immigrant government would much rather see traveling north to Austria, Germany, and beyond, out of its hair.

Germany, Austria, and Italy said on Thursday they would begin talks next week on ways of shutting down the Mediterranean route that migrants take from Africa to Europe – mainly to Italy.

What’s at stake for Europe and Germany?

Merkel said it best in a speech to parliament on Wednesday: “The question of how to deal with migration could determine the survival of the European Union,” which is built on the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services. The re-introduction of “hard borders” with frontier police checking travelers’ ID’s would undermine a key pillar of the 28 member union.

With the new deal hinging on Germany’s ability to secure bilateral agreements with other countries, it is fibrous rather than tightly woven; tugging on a single string could unravel the whole thing. If Germany fails to reach an agreement with Italy, for instance, and that country keeps sending refugees north through Austria, they will run into a hard German border.

That would almost certainly prompt Austria to impose its own checks at its southern frontier with Italy. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as well as some far-right members of his government, have made clear they have no intention of picking up Germany’s slack.

More broadly, Germany’s coalition crisis and the recent election of an anti-foreigner government in Italy has forced the European Union to face up to its failure to manage migrant flows and to begin to fashion a new response, even though the numbers of migrants entering the EU are down by 95 percent since they peaked in 2015.

The new approach is likely to depend heavily on measures to prevent migrants getting anywhere near Europe, patrolling the continent’s exterior border more carefully, and sifting out migrants with genuine asylum claims in camps in North Africa.

In Germany, questions will continue to swirl around the strength of the governing coalition. The crisis between Merkel’s party and its Bavarian consorts has been averted, but for how long? Was this a lasting truce or merely a temporary ceasefire? Merkel has clearly suffered a severe blow to her authority from the way she was obliged to suffer Seehofer’s threats and insults. But the CSU needs her, and her party, to give its Bavarian concerns a national airing.

Will this come back to bite the CSU?

The CSU, a socially very conservative party, has ruled the southern state of Bavaria since the local government was created in 1946, save for a brief period in the 1950s. But now, opinion polls show, the party has the support of only 40 percent of the electorate, down eight points from the last regional ballot.

That is partly because the CSU is losing voters to the far-right AfD, but also because other voters do not like the way CSU leaders are playing the same immigration card as the AfD. More liberal-leaning CSU supporters are switching to the pro-immigration Greens, polls show.

“Center-left and center-right parties always have a credibility issue when they change their rhetoric or their politics to sound more like far-right or nationalist populists,” says Karsten Grabow, a researcher at the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, a think tank with ties to Merkel’s party.

One recent survey found two-thirds of Bavarians regarded the CSU’s behavior as "pure electioneering,” while another revealed a similar number of Germans think the recent shift was neither “justifiable nor responsible.”

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