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Merkel’s Problem on Her Right

Michele Tantussi/Getty Images
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel flanking Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the formation of Germany’s new coalition government, Berlin, March 14, 2018

A few months ago, on the train from Hanover to Berlin, I listened to what has become a familiar conversation in Germany. Two men in the bar car were discussing what they agreed were the troubles caused by refugees. There were the high costs of integration, they said, and crime was rampant.

Crime in Germany is actually at a twenty-five-year low and the German economy has been doing relatively well. Still, the two men traded complaints. At one point, they tried to draw me into their conversation. I introduced myself as an American journalist who preferred to be reading her book. The subject then turned to the problem of Neukölln, a Berlin neighborhood with a large Arab population. It was unrecognizable, it was dangerous, it was not what it should be.

When the train pulled into Berlin Central Station, one of the men followed me out the door. He, too, was a journalist, he said. He didn’t really believe what he had been saying, he wanted me to understand. He was just trying to get a sense of what the other guy thought. Those AfD voters are so crazy! he said, hoping to engage me with a conspiratorial nod. I said goodnight and rode up the escalator.

Later, I regretted not asking this man why he had reinforced beliefs he knew to be untrue. Even if he had a professional motive, why had he repeated lies?

I’ve been thinking of that conversation in recent weeks, as a series of events propelled by the phantom of migration have threatened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, the European Union, and the lives of thousands of people.

A rough timeline of those events goes as follows. About three weeks ago, Horst Seehofer, the new minister for the interior, building, and “Heimat” and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, announced an immigration plan that proposed Germany’s turning away refugees at the country’s southern border with Austria.

Migration, always a specter in German politics, has been front and center in the news after several high-profile crimes, including the murder of a Jewish teenager allegedly by an asylum-seeker in the town of Wiesbaden in May. Seehofer’s proposals had partial backing from the CSU base, which seeks tougher borders and will be voting in regional elections in the fall. His proposals also seem to be motivated by animosity toward Merkel. “I cannot work with this woman any longer,” he reportedly exclaimed in a recent political meeting. Many observers see his immigration gambit as a power grab, an attempt to force Merkel out of government or spur the CSU to operate alone.

For her part, Merkel pushed back against Seehofer’s plan. She pointed out that European nations could not unilaterally erect hard borders with EU neighbors. She asked for two weeks to work out a policy at the upcoming EU migration summit this past Thursday in Brussels.

Which migrants is Seehofer afraid of? The number of people trying to get to Europe has dropped drastically. Today, about 13,000 people apply for asylum in Germany each month, down from 62,000 a month in 2016. This is lower, in fact, than the limit set in the most recent coalition agreement. Yet, since 2015, fear of a new “wave” of immigrants has shaped German politics.

Never mentioned is the fact that the country is already more diverse than its leaders let on. One in five Germans comes from an immigrant background. The country also needs immigration: about 400,000 newcomers a year to fill current jobs.  The finances of Germany’s pension fund and health insurance scheme are stable because of non-Germans who pay into social security.

As the presence of the anti-immigrant populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has made itself felt with electoral victories and a constant media presence, the traditional conservative parties have also marched to the right. Similarly “tough on immigration” politicians have risen in influence among Bavaria’s foreign neighbors, and their leaders—men like Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of Austria, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary—are popular with CSU politicians. In the past few months, members of the CSU have ordered the introduction of Christian crosses in state buildings, for example, and railed against Islam. 

Opinion polling offers only an impressionistic snapshot, but these kinds of measures don’t seem particularly popular. The CSU’s approval rating has declined since Seehofer began his attempt to oust Merkel. Asked about the biggest problem facing Bavaria in one survey, 30 percent of respondents said, “refugees,” while 39 percent responded, “the CSU.” A majority of Germans still favor Merkel’s immigration policies over those of Seehofer. The CSU leader of Bavaria, Markus Söder, who shares Seehofer’s views, has more fans among AfD voters than in his own party.

At the EU summit itself, which concluded last week, other Europeans took a strong anti-immigration tone. Giuseppe Conte, the new Italian prime minister, refused to vote on any proposals until migration was discussed. Kurz presented himself as a power-broker by arguing for a strong Europe and stating that the focus should be on toughening external borders, not internal ones. Two days earlier, he had unveiled a new, 600-strong border protection unit, Puma, which rallied in blue uniforms along Austria’s frontier with Slovenia.

The policy that came out of the summit is vague and contradictory in parts, but the message is clear: it is anti-immigrant. Among other things, the policy commits to establishing processing centers for housing migrants outside of the EU. (That the EU’s commissioner for migration and home affairs felt it was necessary to say, “I’m against Guantánamo Bay for migrants,” may give a sense of the kinds of facilities proposed.) The summit also seemed to condemn NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières for rescuing people in the Mediterranean. Responsibility for these migrants should, according to the resolution, fall to the Libyan coast guard, which would transport them to detention centers where they lack water and adequate sanitation. In a possible nod to Seehofer, the resolution also warned against the movement of migrants from one part of the EU to another.

Merkel seemed pleased with her achievements at the summit, but the CSU continued to claim they are not enough. They have pressed Merkel for more, though their strategy seems more of a long whine than a coordinated offensive. At a press conference last weekend, Seehofer offered to resign, then decided to stay put. He mouthed off about Merkel for the press on Monday, saying that she had become chancellor because of him. On Monday night, the two parties reached a compromise: closed refugee camps, quicker deportations and a “new border regime” on the frontier with Austria.

Merkel praised the compromise “found after tough rounds and difficult days,” but the deal is neither settled nor good. Both the SPD, the center-left party in Merkel’s coalition, and the government of Austria have already raised objections—the SPD because Social Democrats oppose border camps, and the Austrians because they don’t want to accept migrants turned away at the border. If migrants are turned back into Austria, that country may, in turn, threaten to block migrants on its southern borders with Italy and Slovenia. The policies suggest the end of an open Europe, where now only white people will have freedom of movement.  

It is not hysterical or simple-minded to state the truth: people will die because of the policies being put in place in the EU. From 1993 to 2013, a total of 34,361 people have died trying to get to Europe, mostly by drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to a recent report in The Guardian. About 100 died just last week, off the coast of Tripoli; 114 more in a shipwreck on Sunday, according to the International Organization for Migration. In recent weeks, as European leaders have been debating where to send people crossing the sea, three ships full of migrants waited in the water, denied entry from port to port. (Finally, two docked in Spain, one in Malta.)

The plan to curb phantom migration may well please the phantom voters. Strong borders, as the populist politicians demand, also have very real consequences.