A deep rift over migration policy between Angela Merkel and a rebellious interior minister is threatening to upend the German chancellor’s fragile governing alliance formed earlier this year after weeks of laborious talks.
The German chancellor’s 13-year rule will be on the line in the event Horst Seehofer, a member of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, a junior partner in the coalition government, defies Merkel by ordering border guards to turn back migrants arriving Monday at German borders.
Neither the chancellor nor minister appeared Sunday to be in any mood to compromise. Seehofer blamed the chancellor in remarks to German newspapers for the crisis, saying it is a consequence of her 2015 decision to adopt an “open border” policy that has allowed more than a million migrants and refugees to enter Germany.
CSU’s top official in Bavaria, Markus Soder, tweeted: “We must finally secure our borders effectively. This, of course, includes rejection. Asylum tourism must be terminated.”
Analysts say Merkel would likely have no choice but to fire Seehofer for his open revolt against her if he goes ahead with his threat to shutter the border for migrants, collapsing the coalition as a consequence and triggering likely elections.
Merkel fears an abrupt shutting out of asylum-seekers by Germany will prompt other EU countries to follow suit, imperiling an orderly negotiated EU-wide deal. The stakes are high not only for her, but also for the bloc as it searches to craft a migration policy all its fractious states can agree to, and for the CSU, which faces elections in October in its home region of Bavaria and fears the rising support for the far-right AfD party.
In her weekly podcast, Merkel acknowledged the need for changes, but said, “This is a European challenge that also needs a European solution. And I view this issue as decisive for keeping Europe together.”
At the moment the member states are anything but united over migration, and in the words of British commentator and historian Niall Ferguson, the EU melting pot is at risk of melting down.
The German crisis is playing against the backdrop of drama in the Mediterranean, where Rome is refusing to allow NGO ships carrying migrants rescued at sea to dock at Italian ports. It comes as the nationalist populist-led governments of Italy, Austria and Hungary are negotiating what they are terming an “axis of the willing,” an alliance of anti-migration member states that will adopt a hard collective line on asylum-seekers in order to provoke a confrontation with EU leaders later this month.
In 2016, 2.4 million migrants entered the European Union, bringing the total of the foreign-born population in the bloc to nearly 40 million.
Having ridden into power on a tide of anti-migrant sentiment, populists in Central Europe have been further galvanized by Italy’s coalition government formed by Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S).
The new Italian government increased the political temperature over migration earlier this month when Interior Minister Salvini announced a ban on humanitarian rescue ships docking at Italian ports after picking up migrants in the waters off Libya. Salvini argues the rescue ships are indirectly encouraging smugglers and migrants and are in effect in league with traffickers.
On Sunday three ships, an NGO vessel and two Italian naval ships, carrying more than 600 migrants docked in the Spanish port of Valencia. They were rescued a week ago off the coast of Libya and have remained at sea while the European Union insisted Italy had a duty to admit them. The ban prompted an exchange of insults between Paris and Rome.
Speaking Friday in Paris after meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime minister Giuseppe Conte said EU rules have to change with a re-writing of the Dublin Treaty that requires migrants to claim asylum in the first country they arrive.” The concept itself of the ‘state of first entry’ must be rethought,” he said. President Macron argued against any unilateral action by individual member state, saying there had to be an overall European response to migrants.
But Macron accepts change is needed, saying “the existing European response has not adapted.”
In Valencia, the Spanish Red Cross set up a reception center staffed by more than 1,000 volunteers and 400 translators.
More than 23,000 migrants have reached European shores this year, with about 42 percent arriving in Italy from Libya. Thirty-eight percent arrived in Greece from Turkey and 20 percent arrived in Spain from Morocco, according to the International Organization for Migration.