BERLIN — Cut through the haze of the European Union’s latest all-nighter and there’s really only one question that matters in the near-term: Is it enough to save Angela Merkel?
In other words, has Europe made sufficient progress on the refugee front to calm Merkel’s Bavarian allies and keep the German government from collapsing? Early indications suggest it has.
“The EU summit took a big step towards a better migration policy,” tweetedManfred Weber, a senior official in Bavaria’s Christian Social Union who also leads the European People’s Party group in Parliament.
Weber, whose party’s insistence that Germany be allowed to turn back refugees at the border sparked a crisis some feared could bring down the EU, was almost effusive.
“Europe stands for humanity towards people in need, determination in the protection of external borders and in the fight against illegal migration, as well as for solidarity with one another,” he wrote.
The deal represents tangible progress that few observers believed possible at a time of high tension within the EU.
The summit outcome represented a “strong signal,” Hans Michelbach, a member of the CSU’s executive committee, told German television Friday morning. “One can conclude with some satisfaction that the path toward a common European asylum policy is leading in the right direction,” he added.
CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who is also Germany’s interior minister, agreed two weeks ago to give Merkel until the summit to negotiate a European solution before ordering that some refugees at the border be turned back.
Both Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the CSU plan internal meetings Sunday afternoon to discuss the summit’s outcome and the future of their center-right alliance.
So far, Merkel appears to be winning the PR-war. With Germany’s main press outlets describing the EU summit as a major breakthrough on migration policy, it would be difficult for the CSU to counter that narrative and justify breaking with her, even if it wanted to.
In truth, the summit declarations, which sketch out a plan to set up refugee camps in Africa among other measures, is little more than a blueprint. The central question of how to distribute refugees who qualify for asylum among EU members — which has created a deep divide in Europe at the height of the crisis in 2015 — remains unresolved, for example.
Still, the deal represents tangible progress that few observers believed possible at a time of high tension within the EU. For Merkel, who engaged in a diplomatic blitz this month to forge a European consensus on refugees, the result should provide the edge she was seeking, in part because expectations were so low.
In addition to the summit accord, the German leader made headway in pursuing bilateral deals with other EU capitals to take back refugees who were originally registered in those countries. This group includes France, Spain and Greece. Merkel has said she regards such agreements as a temporary solution until a more comprehensive EU policy is in place.
Yet it could prove the key to solving her conflict with the Bavarians, who need to present their base evidence that more refugees are heading out of Germany. Ultimately, it would be up to Seehofer, in his role as interior minister, to finalize those agreements.
Brenner Pass threat
Seehofer’s standoff with Merkel is widely considered to be less about the narrow question of how to deal with refugees at Germany’s border, where arrivals havefallen sharply over the past year, than about what many in Bavaria perceive to be the chancellor’s “open door” policy on asylum.
There are growing concerns that enforcing Seehofer’s policy would lead Germany’s neighbors to re-introduce regular border controls.
With the CSU under pressure from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party ahead of a crucial state election in Bavaria in October, Seehofer and his allies have used the refugee issue to try to distance themselves from Merkel and her unpopular policies.
So far, it hasn’t worked. The CSU is now polling at just over 40 percent in Bavaria, suggesting it will fail to defend the absolute majority it won in 2013. There is no evidence that Seehofer’s clash with Merkel has improved its standing among voters.
In fact, some analysts argue that it’s hurting the party. Asked in a new poll what they considered to be the biggest problem in Bavaria, 39 percent of local respondents said “the CSU.” Only 30 percent cited the refugees.
In addition, there are growing concerns that enforcing Seehofer’s policy would lead Germany’s neighbors, as Merkel has repeatedly warned, to re-introduce regular border controls.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told POLITICO in an interview on Thursday that such a step would be unavoidable because his country can’t take in all the refugees passing through its territory from Italy en route to Germany. If Germany tries to send them back, Vienna would respond by securing the Brenner Pass, a crucial trade corridor linking Italy with northern Europe.
Manufacturers and other companies based in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany have warned that such an outcome would have a chilling effect on their business.
That’s one reason why even before the EU summit, Seehofer and other senior CSU officials were sending conciliatory signals.
“I’m very confident we will resolve this,” Seehofer said in a German television interview on Wednesday. “There’s a strong will to do so.”