In an extraordinary last-minute reversal, Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing the imminent collapse of her coalition government, agreed late on July 2 to reinstate border controls with Austria.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had threatened to resign from Merkel's cabinet unless she agreed to a plan by July 3 to reduce so-called irregular secondary movements. The plan to which Merkel agreed entails holding refugees at detention camps to be established along Germany's southern border, the main gateway for refugees to the country, and turning back those who have already claimed asylum in other EU countries.
Seehofer's resignation would have called into question the continued viability of a 70-year-alliance between Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and his Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble warned that the two parties were "standing at the edge of the abyss."
A CDU/CSU divorce would have deprived Merkel of her majority in parliament and possibly triggered new elections in which the anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), would have been the biggest winner, according to recent polls.
By acquiescing to Seehofer's demand, Merkel has secured the near-term continuity of her government. The dispute, however, has exposed Merkel's loss of authority over her own parliamentary group and, according to some observers, has ushered in the beginning of the end of the Merkel era.
The CDU/CSU agreement reads:
"We agree to limit and to improve the control and management of secondary movements:
"We are agreeing to a new border regime at the German-Austrian border, to ensure that we prevent asylum seekers whose asylum procedures are the responsibility of other EU countries are prohibited from entering the country.
"We will establish transit centers from where asylum seekers will be directly returned to the relevant countries (rejection based on a fiction of non-entry). We want to act in a coordinated manner and will conclude administrative agreements with the countries concerned or to establish procedures.
"In cases where countries refuse administrative direct rejection agreements, the deportation will take place at the German-Austrian border on the basis of an agreement with the Republic of Austria."
The so-called transit centers would have an extraterritorial legal status similar to an international airport, so that German authorities can accelerate the deportation of illegal migrants without lengthy administrative procedures. For the deal to work, however, Germany will have to reach bilateral deportation agreements with other EU countries. Austria and Italy, for example, have expressed skepticism about the German plan.
In any event, the agreement is likely to have a deterrent effect as migrants will be reluctant to be indefinitely interned at makeshift camps along the German border until they are deported.
Seehofer's demands were first outlined on June 22, when he announced a 63-point "Migration Masterplan" to restore order to Germany's chaotic migration policy. Details of the document were kept secret from the general public until leaked to the media on July 2. The introduction reads:
"The challenges of global migration require a system of order. This masterplan is based on the conviction that our country can only assume its external responsibility if at the same time internal cohesion is maintained.... No country in the world can take in refugees indefinitely. Successful integration can only succeed with a limitation of immigration. This is the core message of the coalition agreement....
"We want to prevent people from going underground during or after an asylum procedure or disguising their true identity. The request for humanitarian protection and the committing of criminal offenses is ruled out in principle....
"People without right of residence must leave our country. A deportation order must be followed by an actual departure...."
Of the 63 points, Number 27 was considered to be the most contentious. It called for the reestablishment of border controls with Austria, and the "refusal of entry to anyone who has already applied for asylum in another EU member state."
Merkel said that she was vehemently opposed reinstating German border controls out of concerns that other European governments would do the same, thereby triggering a domino-effect that would effectively end the free movement of people within the so-called Schengen Area. Currently, the Area comprises 26 European states that have abolished passport controls at their mutual borders.
Seehofer responded to Merkel's concerns by giving her time to find a European solution. An EU Summit in Brussels on June 28-29, described as the "mother of all summits" because of its impact on Merkel's political future, attempted to bridge the differences among EU member states over migration policy. After a marathon negotiating session, EU member states agreed to a series of vague promises that there should be "a shared effort" on migration but "only on a voluntary basis."
The Economist, in an editorial entitled, "The EU argues till dawn on migration, and achieves little," wrote:
"There is a pattern to European Union summits about subjects on which governments cannot agree. First, leaders stay up all night to signal their commitment. Second, they issue a statement sufficiently vague and contradictory to allow everyone to declare victory. Third, officials charged with implementing the agreement argue endlessly over how to interpret it....
"The leaders battled into the pre-dawn hours on June 29, but the tortuous phrasing of their conclusions — one sentence contained 12 commas — betrayed their inability to find meaningful compromises on the issues that continue to bedevil them.... As ever, the trickiest discussion was on how to share responsibility among governments for migrants who arrive in Europe."
The Guardian wrote:
"Whether the deal will last, or will work, or will begin to draw the sting of the migration issue are all profoundly doubtful, however. It is very hard to be confident that any of these things will happen. The summit communique may say that the issue is one for Europe 'as a whole,' but the practical reality is that differences were papered over, not resolved. The EU's much-vaunted principles of solidarity were conspicuous by their absence in words of studied vagueness."
In the end, Seehofer said that the agreement Merkel reached at the EU summit in Brussels had failed to meet his demands.
Reaction to Merkel's last-minute deal with Seehofer, which must still be approved by her other coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was mixed, with some questioning the legality of the agreement. Some commentators said the deal was unlikely to be effective, while others said that Merkel has been weakened by the dispute. Most German commentators agree that Merkel's open-border migration policies may be her political undoing.
Bild, in an editorial entitled "Toxic Solution," wrote:
"The CDU and CSU have now agreed on something they could have agreed on three years ago. It is possible that the solution works. It is certain that the climate in the coalition has probably never been so poisoned as now."
The President of the German Institute for Economic Research, Marcel Fratzscher, said:
"A breakup of the German government, just 100 days after taking office, was prevented for the time being, but the tensions within the government remain. This is a pity not only for Germany but also for Europe, as it undermines the credibility of the German government and the Federal Chancellor."
The chairman of the DPolG police union, Ernst Walter, praised the agreement and said that he was "very happy" that Seehofer "showed courage, has not resigned and continues to be our interior minister."
The vice president of the GdP police union, Jörg Radek, noted that the CDU/CSU agreement is limited to the German border with Austria. In 2017, he said, there were 16,312 unauthorized entries on the border with Austria, but 33,823 unauthorized entries along Germany's other borders, including those with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland. "The borders with Belgium and the Netherlands are as open as a barn door," he said. Radek accused the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia of resisting effective controls along its border.
Matthew Qvortrup, the author of the recent book, "Angela Merkel: Europe's Most Influential Leader," concluded:
"After almost 13 years in power, time is rapidly running out for the German chancellor.
"Nowhere was her diminishing influence more evident than at last week's EU leaders' summit. Where once Merkel commanded the floor and had other leaders practically queuing up to kiss her hand, this time it was she who came with the begging bowl, and all but implored her colleagues to find a solution to the immigration problem that could save her political skin. Gone was the confident chancellor, usually front and center in photographs in her usual pose: eyes straight ahead, hands clasped in front of her. Instead, she looked away....
"She might yet survive as chancellor. She might try to engineer a transfer of power to her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU general secretary. But this could be difficult. Once, Merkel controlled the party and politicians were seeking to be anointed by her. That was then. This is now. It might well be time to say, 'Auf Wiedersehen, Mutti' (Goodbye, Mom)."