Bavarians confront Merkel in German migrant policy showdown

BERLIN: Bavarian conservatives rejected on Thursday a compromise on migrant policy put forward by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to avert a crisis in her loveless coalition just three months after it took office.

At stake are Merkel’s authority as well as the future of her alliance with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democrat coalition partners at a time when European divisions have come to a head over a ship carrying migrants that was refused entry to Italy.

The power struggle between Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU is over his "Masterplan for Migration", a blueprint in which he wants to show voters a tough line before a Bavarian election in October.

In particular, Merkel objects to a plan which would allow authorities to reject migrants who reach German borders, drawn by the country’s prosperity and stability, if they have already registered in other EU states to the south.

At a four-hour meeting, lawmakers from the CSU backed Seehofer and said he might even defy his boss by going ahead with his plan next week without her agreement.

That would be an affront to Merkel and could force her to fire Seehofer or lead to her Christian Democrats (CDU) breaking off its cooperation with the CSU in a parliamentary bloc, an arrangement in effect since 1949.

The CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) alone lack a majority in parliament.

"It is serious, very serious," said CSU parliamentary group leader Alexander Dobrindt.

Seehofer’s plan would represent a reversal of Merkel’s open-door policy for migrants from 2015, which has already been scaled back. She argues doing this could lead to other countries following suit and that a European-wide solution is needed.

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At the meeting, CSU lawmakers supported Merkel’s efforts to find a European solution, but said they could not wait that long. The CSU will decide on further steps on Monday.

"Asylum tourism must end. Germany cannot wait endlessly for Europe, but must act independently," said Bavaria’s hardline premier Markus Soeder.

In a highly unusual move reflecting the depth of the row, the Bundestag lower house session was interrupted to allow Merkel’s CDU and the CSU to meet separately on the issue.

CDU BACKING

Merkel has proposed that asylum seekers who had already been rejected by Germany could be turned back at the border. But she also wants time before a European Union summit on June 28-29 to agree bi- or trilateral deals with member states where migrants first register but then head to Germany.

With 1.6 million migrants arriving in Germany since 2014, her open-door policy has been widely blamed for a surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). It became the main opposition party after a September vote.

An ARD poll showed on Thursday that 62 percent of Germans believe refugees without papers should not be allowed to enter Germany. It also showed only 37 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with the work of Merkel’s government so far.

Merkel can draw some comfort from the positive reception her compromise got among CDU lawmakers, many of whom had earlier this week voiced at least some support for Seehofer’s plan.

A majority of CDU lawmakers backed her, said party sources.

"If Angela Merkel pushes for a European solution, then she has my support," the CDU premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state told German television, echoing other senior CDU voices.

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However, CDU Health Minister and longtime Merkel critic Jens Spahn did not fully support her idea, German media reported.

Merkel now faces intense pressure to get deals with EU partners by the summit. A CDU source said after the meeting that the chancellor had told lawmakers she was aware that two weeks was an ambitious timetable to achieve this.

In a rare convergence of views, the SPD and AfD both dismissed the row as an election manoeuvre. "Staging such a drama to serve regional elections is not appropriate," said SPD leader Andrea Nahles.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Tom Koerkemeier, Michelle Martin; Writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by David Stamp; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Stamp)