30 October 2015

Seehofer pushes back against Merkel – but is her position really under threat?

Germany’s grand coalition will hold crisis talks this weekend over the refugee crisis with some 10,000 people entering the country every day. However, the biggest tensions are not between Merkel and the SPD, but between her CDU party and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Although there have always been some tensions in this relationship, the crisis has significantly intensified these as Bavaria has found itself on the front line and struggling to cope with the influx. Over the past few weeks, CSU leader and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer has been pushing back against Merkel’s ‘welcome policy’, threatening to explore unilateral options and to take the government to the German Constitutional Court for failing to protect its borders, while today he even hinted he could pull CSU Ministers out of the Cabinet.

Of course, there is a strong element of bluster involved – Seehofer needs to be seen to responding to public concerns about the scale of the crisis and although he is unlikely to make good on his threats – not least since pulling out of the coalition would make little sense – they still illustrate the scale of the challenge the crisis poses to Germany’s traditionally cohesive and consensus-based politics. Meanwhile, Seehofer’s tougher stance has helped to ramp up the pressure on Merkel who has already passed a package of previously unthinkably tough asylum laws to return failed asylum seekers – targeted specifically at Western Balkan nationals (who as we pointed out until recently still accounted for some 40% of German asylum claims) and increased co-operation with the transit states like Turkey.

There is also increasing dissent within the ranks of Merkel’s own CDU party – earlier this month, 34 regional CDU politicians from eight states wrote to Merkel criticising her policy of ‘open borders’.  Nonetheless, for the moment, her position remains secure – as Politico’s Florian Eder points out, Germans still support the principle of taking in refugees; it is the high number and the lack of control they object to, something which Merkel is belatedly starting to address. Given the lack of obvious alternatives, my expectation is that Merkel will again lead her party into the next Bundestag elections.

Could the crisis see the resurgence of outright nationalism in Germany?

That said, the crisis not only poses a longer-term challenge not only to Merkel’s position but also to the stability of German politics and society (Hans Kundani has a good piece on the implications of the crisis for the country’s post-war identity in this week’s Spectator). Germany is one of few European countries not to have a significant anti-immigration/nationalist party but as we warned back in January in the wake of the anti-Islamification Pegida protests, “Germany – so far relatively spared from the big insurgent vs establishment clash haunting Europe – may be on the verge of a quite nasty immigration debate of its own.”

Although support for Merkel has held up relatively well, there has been a noticeable decline in support for the CDU/CSU over recent weeks while Alternative für Deutschland, which began life as a protest party against the Eurozone bailouts but has now shifted focus to the refugee crisis, has seen its support inch upwards.

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AfD is not anti-immigration per se, but it has taken a very populist stance on the crisis – for example, Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in Brandenburg, has called on Merkel to “find another people” while earlier in the year, senior AfD figures reached out to the Pegida movement, a move which contributed to moderate figures including Bernd Lucke, one of the party’s founders, to break way.

AfD may not be as radical as other European parties which occupy a similar space, but in the context of German politics this is a significant development, and given the country’s history, a concerning one. Meanwhile, outside of the political process, the spate of violent attacks on refugees and asylum hostels has increased, prompting Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to warn that Germany is facing “the dangerous radicalication of large parts of society.”

There is still just under two years until the next federal elections, but with the crisis  set to intensify next year, AfD are unlikely to go away. As with similar parties across Europe, the constant vilification by mainstream parties and the media could solidify their insurgent credentials. Just by polling at their current level the party can change the political climate on topics such as migration – as we warned last year, the party could “becomes to the CDU what Die Linke is to the SPD… too big to ignore, too controversial to team up with.”

Even if the party only wins a modest number of Bundestag seats in the next elections, it could force the CDU to again turn to the SPD to form a stable government, in turn further narrowing the space for mainstream political alternatives and boosting the prospects of more radical ones.