Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.
All of Europe is currently on hold – and holding its breath. Business as usual is at a standstill, even though the EU is mired in its deepest crisis since its founding and other urgent matters, like a trade war with the US, are begging for redress.
Because the German state of Bavaria has a regional election scheduled for mid-October.
It may sound absurd – and indeed it is – but Bavaria’s conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has ruled in Bavaria since 1949, is panicked that it might lose the absolute majority in its southern German stronghold. Polls show it kilometers ahead of all of the opposition parties – and thus a given to win and remain in office – but this time around in need of a junior coalition partner, perhaps the Greens or the Liberals, to constitute a majority.
The CSU is in this unfamiliar but not-so-desperate position because Germany’s own far right party, the xenophobic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is cutting into its traditional constituencies. In the 2017 general election, the AfD, running for the first time nationally, took 10% of the Bavarian vote and the CSU dropped by 10%, capturing 39% of the vote.
In order to win back its stray sheep, the CSU has responded in exactly the wrong way, namely by loudly championing all of the far right’s causes: anti-immigration, the security state, militarized EU borders, racial profiling, and Germany-first economics. The CSU, for example, objects to Germany giving even an inch in reforming the eurozone along the lines favored by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Just as Austria’s conservatives in the 1990s foolheartedly played into the court of its far right, thus lending it legitimacy and voters, the CSU is throwing fuel on the fire in Germany. The more it apes the AfD, the larger the far-right party grows. Currently in the polls the AfD is at 13.5% in Bavaria and 16% nationally, all-time highs.
All of this would hardly matter to people beyond the Alps if the CSU were not a member of Merkel’s shaky center-left government, the far right was not on the rise across Europe, and the EU was not at odds with itself. Moreover, the CSU’s stubborn, demagogic campaign has given the Trump administration opportunity to effectively intervene in German politics on behalf of the far right, another step toward upending the postwar transatlantic alliance, until now the bedrock of Atlantic security since 1945.
Now, this does matter as it is a highly precarious, wholly unprecedented state of affairs, which could well unseat German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who looks weaker than ever before. That would leave Macron the lone heavyweight standing for liberal values in Europe.
In its lurch to the far right, the CSU has not been attacking the AfD, as one might expect, but rather Angela Merkel personally and the center-left government, of which it is part. The CSU’s most vocal antagonist – there are several in the chorus – is Horst Seehofer, a lumbering, straight-faced bear of a man, who is Merkel’s interior minister, as well as head of the CSU.
Topic number one in the nasty, public internecine wrangle between Merkel and the CSU is Germany’s refugee policy, which the Bavarians have prioritized because the AfD and its hard-right European allies have. Merkel’s detractors assert that Germany is being overrun with refugees of Islamic faith who pose a danger to the security of ordinary Germans and a threat to western civilization as such. This is the same line propagated by Central Europe’s strongmen in office in Poland, Hungary, and Austria, as well as the Trump administration and now Italy too. (One difference, though, the CSU is not for Germany taking zero asylum seekers, but a limited number.)
In fact, Germany’s intake of asylum seekers has plummeted since 2015, when nearly a million refugees, most fleeing Syria’s war, arrived in an unprepared Germany. This year, less than 50,000 (as of April) have applied for political asylum, the reduced number a result of Merkel’s imposition of ever stricter policies and other contingencies.
Thus, there is no refugee crisis in Germany as there is in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon where many millions of refugees reside. Italy and Greece are the European countries on the frontlines, but they’re getting scant help from Germany or any other EU countries.
The dust-up in Germany thus is symbolic, although there’s nothing figurative about the CSU’s unswerving onslaught against Merkel since 2015. Seehofer’s most recent bugbear is Germany’s acceptance of refugees at its border who either don’t have papers of any kind or who have already applied for political asylum in another country. Again, the numbers of such persons coming to Germany is really quite small, and Germany is, as every EU state is, required by international law to accept people fleeing political persecution.
Merkel and the rest of the German government insist on an all-EU solution to refugees and immigration – as they have for years. Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, has audaciously tried to pressure Merkel, saying either she and the other EU nations devise a solution or he closes Bavaria’s borders.
EU leaders have thus agreed to an emergency mini-summit in Brussels this weekend to throw Merkel a lifeline. The problem, however, is that most EU countries object to a proportional distribution of asylum applicants, which is Merkel’s wish – and rightly so. The numbers of refugees per country would be tiny if every EU country would take their share according to population size.
But no. And the Central Europeans aren’t the only ones who dig in their heels.
Merkel’s further option is to reassert the primacy of the EU’s so-called Dublin II regulation for asylum applicants, which means that refugees can only apply for asylum in the EU country that they enter – and then must remain there until a decision is made on their status.
Of course, this raises hackles in frontline states Greece and Italy, which feel swamped with refugees out of Africa and the Middle East. This completely unfair status quo is one of the explanations for Italy’s far right coming to power there.
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Another option is the creation of screening centers in northern Africa to process refugee claims before they arrive in Europe – but the African nations object. Another proposal, clearly appealing to Europe’s right wing, is more financing for securing EU’s external borders to keep refugees from applying for asylum in the first place.
Seehofer and his CSU have staked everything on the issue, thus putting Merkel under extreme pressure. It’s even conceivable that should Merkel fail to deliver, the CSU would pull out of the Berlin coalition and let the government fall. There are already murmurings about possible successors to Merkel.
The end of Merkel’s tenure would not however solve anything. New elections would probably even boost the AfD, which is the prime mover behind the entire imbroglio in the first place.
The small far-right party may be in opposition but it is wielding more clout than anyone thought possible just six months ago. After all, through its willing helpers in Bavaria’s CSU, it has all of Europe on hold.