Seehofer and his allies had hoped that a row over migration would bring down Angela Merkel. They under-estimated herby Matthew Qvortrup / July 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Merkel wins first half,” was the headline on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s live-commentary of Angela Merkel and her Home Secretary Horst Seehofer’s Monday night meeting.
Having been deprived of following the World Cup past the group stage, the summit was reported with all the drama and hysteria that normally characterize a penalty shoot-out.
But before we enter into the climactic final, it is necessary to go back to the first half of the battle between Merkel and Seehofer.
One side, composed of Seehofer and his Bavarian comrades in the Christian Social Union party (CSU), had played aggressively, threatening to turn away immigrants from Germany’s southern border. Although on shaky legal ground, Seehofer forced Merkel to play defensively.
The impression—especially abroad—was that Merkel was going the way of Joachim Low’s Fußballnationalmannschaft, and there was a palpable sense of Schadenfreude in British conservative publications like the Daily Mail and the Spectator.
As it turned out, these predictions were, as so often before, based on wishful thinking rather than facts. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Horst Seehofer’s focus was on the state elections in Bavaria in October this year. The CSU is defending an absolute majority of seats in the local parliament.
However, after losses to the far-right AfD in last year’s Bundestag elections, his party is in danger of losing their overall control in the Landtag in Munich. To avoid this, the CSU want a sharper profile, especially on immigration.
To this end, Seehofer announced that Germany should go it alone instead of seeking a common European position, and that Bavaria would stop immigrants at the border. Constitutionally, he cannot do so. But Merkel would have to sack him if he ignored her. And this could lead to her downfall.
It was this which was his main aim. In this, he was supported by Markus Söder, who had replaced Seehofer as State Premier after the latter moved to Berlin to become minister of the interior. The two Bavarians have never forgiven Merkel for turning the once Catholic conservative CDU into a secular and centrist party.
Seemingly on the backfoot, Merkel was playing for time. Seehofer granted her time to find the “European solution” to the migrant crisis that had eluded her for two years. He did not expect the chancellor to pull off another consensus agreement.
Yet, after a marathon session at the European summit last weekend, Merkel did exactly that. The European leaders agreed to strengthen Frontex (the EU’s border force), as well as to establish processing centres in northern Africa.
This initially satisfied the CSU. But it created a problem for Seehofer. He had been confident that Merkel was a spent force; that she could not get a deal.
He had underestimated her.
Like in many previous negotiations—indeed, throughout her whole career—Merkel had played defensively in the first half, and only turned up the heat at the very end of the negotiations.
As early as 2005, she used the same tactic when she formed a coalition and outsmarted her predecessor Gerhard Schröder; in 2008, she waited until literally the last minute of the negotiations over the financial crisis before she secured a deal. She followed the same tactic in the protracted discussions over the Greek bailout in 2015.
Horst Seehofer was losing face, and he knew it. To add to his woes, opinion polls showed that his personal popularity had fallen but that Merkel’s had improved.
The Bavarian went for broke; the equivalent of substituting a goalkeeper for striker. He threatened to resign if his demands were not met. His resignation would have led to the downfall of the coalition government. “I will not be dismissed by a chancellor whom I brought to power,” he sneered in an interview with the centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung.
But the Bavarian had not done his homework. Merkel had already lined up a deal with the Green Party should the CDU leave. And she had an even stronger card.
Merkel’s CDU does not contest elections in Bavaria. As things stand, the CDU and the CSU are sister parties, collectively known as Die Union. But if the CDU were to field candidates, the CSU would lose its majority.
This last happened in 1976, and had disastrous consequences. Other members of the CSU knew this. Half-way through the negotiations on Monday evening Gerd Müller, the CSU cabinet minister for overseas development (and no relation to the legendary Bayern Munich striker) told the media that the CSU would continue to be part of Merkel’s government even without Seehofer.
The challenger had lost.
An hour later, Seehofer accepted Merkel’s proposal for transit centres for refugees – something that fell short of Seehofer’s original demands.
Having started with the political equivalent of total-football, the CSU leader ended up scoring a spectacular own goal. Giants are being slayed in this year’s World Cup. But as so often before, Angela Merkel secured victory in extra time.