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Trump Slams Ally Merkel Amid German Coalition Crisis Over Immigration

The crisis shaking the new administration has come from within Merkel’s own conservative family, as her interior minister has pushed for Germany to turn back unilaterally some migrants at its border

Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 summit
Jesco Denzel/AP

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s allies in Bavaria averted an immediate collision Monday with the German leader, giving her two weeks to make deals on migration with other European countries instead of turning back migrants unilaterally at Germany’s border.

In her fourth term at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, Merkel made it clear that she has no intention of being pushed around after an internal power struggle over immigration escalated into a threat to her government.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning, writing: "The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!" Trump in recent days has claimed the "fake news" media has been falsely pushing the notion that he and Merkel have a strained relationship - a fact which this latest tweet is all but certain to gaurantee. Fact checkers instantly debunked Trump's claim that crime is up.

Merkel, widely viewed as a leader of liberal forces in Europe, is insisting on finding a wider European solution for the issue of immigration. However the dispute ends, it has exposed her government’s fragility at a difficult time for the continent.

Sibling rivalry

Two parties have made up Germany’s mainstream center-right in the post-World War II era: the Christian Democratic Union, currently led by Merkel; and the Christian Social Union, now led by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. The CSU exists only in Bavaria, and the CDU in Germany’s other 15 states.

The two stay out of each other’s territory, but have a joint group in the federal parliament and campaign together in national elections. The CSU has governed Bavaria since 1957. Its dominance there makes it an important source of votes in a national election for the center-right bloc collectively known as the Union.

The CSU is more conservative than Merkel’s CDU and its paramount aim is to maintain its dominance in Bavaria. Still, polls suggest that its absolute majority in the Bavarian state legislature is in danger in the Oct. 14 state election — and it is being challenged on the right by the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

Bavarian beef

Merkel has had an often-tense history with Seehofer, and their relationship became really difficult after Merkel’s 2015 decision to keep Germany’s borders open as migrants streamed across the Balkans. Seehofer — then the governor of Bavaria, where most migrants first entered Germany — became a leading critic of her welcoming approach. In 2016, he threatened Merkel’s federal government with a lawsuit if it didn’t take measures to further secure the border.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an anti-migration hardliner, was invited to CSU meetings.

Merkel and Seehofer papered over the cracks ahead of last year’s national election, but support for both parties still dropped significantly. The CSU’s share of the vote in Bavaria dropped 10.5 percentage points to 38.8 percent, with Alternative for Germany a major beneficiary. CSU leaders insisted that the causes for the drop in support were in Berlin, and that Germany’s migration policy was a major factor.

The poor showing also set off an internal power struggle: Seehofer salvaged his job as party leader, but gave up the Bavarian governor’s job to younger rival Markus Soeder. Seehofer entered Merkel’s government as interior minister, promising a “master plan” to tackle migration.

Soeder and the CSU’s ambitious top lawmaker in Berlin, Alexander Dobrindt, have sounded even tougher than Seehofer lately in demanding immediate action on immigration.

Merkel and migration

Merkel herself has come a long way since the fall of 2015, when she said that there was no legal limit to the number of people who have a right to asylum and told Germans that “we will manage” the challenge of integrating migrants, many of them from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan.

In 2016, she was a prime mover behind a deal between the European Union and Turkey to stop migrants crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece. Her government toughened asylum rules and declared several countries “safe,” meaning people from there can’t expect to get refuge in Germany. She has also called for a “national effort” to ensure that rejected asylum-seekers leave Germany.

However, Merkel has been unyielding in defending her initial decision to keep Germany’s borders open, telling lawmakers earlier this month that “in an exceptional humanitarian situation, Germany behaved very responsibly.” And she has stuck to her insistence that there needs to be a European-wide solution to migration issues, despite a lack of progress so far.

Merkel’s supporters argue that turning back migrants unilaterally would simply dump the problem on Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece, which would also weaken the European Union itself.

Asked in Berlin whether Merkel’s government can work well until the end of its term in 2021 and whether she is still in full control, Merkel replied: “Yes to both.”

Merkel emphasized the need for Germany’s conservative parties to stick together, but she and Seehofer still appeared to be setting different priorities.

“It is in Germany’s interest to achieve the regulation of migration in a good partnership with our European neighbors,” Merkel said after her CDU’s leadership met. “We think that turning people back without consultation at our borders, as a country at the heart of Europe, could lead to negative domino effects that could also hurt Germany and ultimately lead to the questioning of European unity.”

Merkel said she will hold talks on bilateral agreements with other European countries at and around a June 28-29 EU summit. She said her party will consider the results on July 1 “and decide how to proceed in light of what has been achieved.”

There is, she insisted, “nothing automatic” about what happens next.

It wasn’t immediately clear what she might offer other countries in talks. Merkel said she will have to discuss “what is important for others; I can’t say today what that is.”

In Munich, Seehofer said his party would be happy to see European or bilateral solutions this month that “achieve the same that we can achieve by turning people back at the border.”

“We wish the chancellor success in this,” he said. “But we stand by our position that, if this does not succeed, turning people back immediately at the border must be possible.”

The spat over immigration has laid bare deep tensions in a fractious German government that took office only in March, after nearly six months of postelection haggling, and exposed the limits of Merkel’s authority. The two conservative parties govern Germany in a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats.

Seehofer and Merkel have long had an awkward relationship. In his previous job as Bavarian governor, Seehofer was one of the leading critics of Merkel’s decision in 2015 to leave Germany’s borders open as migrants streamed across the Balkans.

Most first arrived in Bavaria, which borders Austria. More than 1 million migrants came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, though numbers have since dropped sharply.

Seehofer said Monday that the latest argument “isn’t about 14 days, it’s about a fundamental disagreement” about turning back migrants unilaterally. He said he had told fellow leaders that “we’re not out of the woods yet.”

In Brussels, the EU asylum office said Monday the number of people applying for international protection in Europe plunged last year but remains higher than before 2015, when more than one million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.

The office said 728,470 application requests were made for international protection in 2017, compared to almost 1.3 million applications the previous year. Around 30 percent came from conflict-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq.