Just months after sealing the deal on her fourth coalition government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing what some have called the worst crisis of her political career.
On Tuesday, Merkel met with French President Emmanuel Macron in hopes of finding a joint Franco-German stance on European migration policy.
The meeting came a day after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – gave the chancellor a two-week ultimatum to broker an agreement with European leaders on migration.
The move offered Merkel a temporary reprieve from a mutiny within her own government.
The ongoing standoff revolves around a 63-point immigration “master plan” devised by Seehofer, who wants, among others, migrants who have already registered elsewhere in the European Union (EU) to be turned away at the German border.
This has brought the CSU leader into a deadlock with Merkel, who is of the opinion that such a measure will go against Europe’s open border agreement and certain provisions on laws and conventions on refugees and migrants.
On Monday, Seehofer said he would implement his immigration plan step-by-step and hold off on turning away all migrants who have registered in another EU country while Merkel attempts to find a solution.
With a European summit on migration policy scheduled for late June, his ultimatum expires on July 1.
“It’s really a challenge, there actually is no easy way out for her,” said Andrea Roemmele, a professor at Hertie School of Governance in Germany’s capital, Berlin.
“Every potential way weakens her power, unless she really manages – which is highly unlikely – to pull off a great deal” at the summit, she added.
Open door policy
The CDU/CSU conservative alliance came first in September’s general elections, securing 33 percent of the vote but losing nine percentage points compared with 2013.
The current so-called grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrat Party (SPD) is the result of four months of negotiations, during which Merkel’s attempts to work with the liberal Free Democrats and the Green Party failed.
In January, the CDU, CSU and SPD reached a breakthrough by producing a 28-page document, outlining positions on a number of issues, including migration. In the draft pact, the parties agreed to limit the arrival of asylum seekers to around 200,000 a year.
Seehofer has long been a critic of Merkel’s immigration policy. As early as October 2015, he threatened to legally challenge the chancellor’s open door policy in the constitutional court – more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Germany that year.
But today, Roemmele said, “the refugee issue is a non-issue”. It has already been regulated in the coalition agreement, she explained, with all parties agreeing to the annual cap.
Many analysts have explained Seehofer’s challenge of Merkel by pointing to the upcoming October state elections in Bavaria, where support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is on the rise.
“[Immigration] is an issue that works well in the Bavarian campaign. This is the CSU really trying to move towards the right,” Roemmele said.
Karl Kopp, director of Pro Asyl, a human rights group advocating for refugees, said the current standoff is “a theatre within the Christian Democratic family”.
“There is real political crisis in Brussels,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the Belgian capital which hosts several EU institutions.
Kopp argued that Seehofer knows his plan will not work because it is in contravention of EU and international law. The only thing achieved by putting the proposed restrictions in place, added Kopp, is to create “new profit lines for the [people] smuggling industry”.
Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said the interior minister’s attitude is reflective of a “core tension” at the European level.
“What we see is a quite powerful tension between solidarity within the EU and a much stronger emphasis on external border control,” he told Al Jazeera.
Merkel long sought to address Europe’s migration woes through a system of redistribution through quotas but has changed tack in the face of opposition from bloc members.
At the upcoming EU summit, she will likely champion a “flexible solidarity” system in which countries can refuse to take in refugees in exchange for financially compensating other member states.
While Merkel will look to “put into practice the principle of solidarity” at the summit, Geddes said Seehofer has aligned himself with countries whose governments are taking a stronger line, such as Italy, Hungary and Austria.
Last week, the German interior minister invited his Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party who campaigned on a staunchly anti-immigrant platform, for talks. Seehofer is also reportedly friends with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister.
The tension between solidarity and secure borders is a key one, Geddes said. “It went right through the heart of the EU and it’s going to be quite a difficult divide to bridge at the summit meeting.”
The kind of agreement Merkel will need to placate the CSU is unclear, as Seehofer’s expectations of the chancellor are “absolutely vague”, according to Roemmele.
On Monday, Seehofer told a press conference that he would start preparing for the implementation of his measures in case Merkel came home empty-handed.
“We want this national solution unless a European solution comes together,” he said. “We wish the chancellor much luck.”
In a press conference of her own, Merkel remained defiant. She said there would be “no automatism” if a European agreement would fail to come about.
“Turning away migrants at our borders at the heart of Europe will lead to negative domino effects that could hurt Germany and put into question European unity,” she said.
Roemmele doubts that the CSU would “play hardball” to the point of splitting from their long-term allies, the CDU.
But even if the CSU decides to walk away from Merkel’s government, it might not mean the end of her fourth term as chancellor.
“No one wants new elections now,” Roemmele said. Instead, she explained, Merkel could forge ahead with a minority government: losing the support of the CSU would leave her only a few seats short of a majority in the 709-seat German Bundestag, something she could overcome by making deals with the Greens, for example.
Speaking after her meeting with Macron at Germany’s Meseberg castle, Merkel reiterated her commitment to solidarity, even as both leaders restated that the flow of undocumented migration to Europe needs to be reduced.
Commenting on the German-French talks, Geddes said that an agreement on immigration between two of the EU’s most powerful countries will carry significant weight within the bloc.
But with some member states moving in a different direction, this might not be enough, he added.
The next few weeks will serve to send “powerful signals” about whether the EU can tackle its migration issues, Geddes said.
“At the moment, EU migration policy seems on the verge of disintegration,” Geddes said.