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Germany

Horst Seehofer’s forays into foreign policy

When it comes to refugee policy, one of Merkel’s biggest adversaries comes from her own ranks: Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, who has even taken to conducting his own foreign policy.

Horst Seehofer's activities (above left with Chancellor Merkel) aren't all that unusual: Other state premiers also take trips abroad and speak to heads of state. But normally, they discuss state-level business, such as investment, cooperating on significant anniversaries, or cultural projects.

Trying to work in a little foreign policy on the side is unique to Bavaria - and it didn't start with Horst Seehofer. One of his predecessors, the legendary CSU party chairman Franz-Josef Strauß, routinely conducted his own foreign policy from Bavaria in the 1970s and 1980s, even though he no longer had a parliamentary mandate. He maintained close relations with military dictators in Paraguay and Chile, much to the displeasure of other parties. In 1983, he negotiated a highly controversial billion-deutschmark loan for the German Democratic Republic. And another former state premier, Edmund Stoiber, made headlines when he unambiguously rejected EU membership for Turkey, a position he rigorously defended until his resignation in 2007.

Refugee crisis sparks new foreign policy push

In November, 2015, the CSU's General Secretary Andreas Scheuer wrote a guest column for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" with the headline "Foreign policy is once again an existential question." Scheuer's argument: The current crises represent the "greatest foreign policy watershed since 1989." But Germany, he said, has not been a particularly strong player on the field. Angela Merkel's open-door policy is, in his words, an exception, and not something Germany's European neighbors would support. Scheuer said Germany was making a mistake by denouncing other countries for not following its "borderless policy." Rather, Berlin would do well to take the complaints to heart, and revise its decision.

In December, the CSU got down to brass tacks. The Bavarian economics minister traveled to Moscow. And in Munich, Seehofer hosted a "foreign policy club" and traveled to Bulgaria. Then, at the beginning of February, a highlight: Seehofer and Stoiber's visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Friday, Seehofer will visit Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. After that, he'll go on to Kyiv, and another visit to Moscow is slated for later this year. "We are strengthening our Eastern European strategy," said Seehofer when asked about the diplomacy by German news magazine "Der Spiegel."

Deutschland Flüchtlinge bei Wegscheid an der Grenze zu Österreich

Refugees trekking through Bavaria late last year

Duel with Merkel

Seehofer's "foreign policy" has a clear geographical focus. But that also has current domestic policy reasons. Warsaw, Budapest, and Munich are united in their criticism of Merkel's refugee policy. Seehofer would like to establish an upper limit for the number of refugees Germany will accept as a "national solution," because he doesn't believe Merkel's search for a European solution will succeed.

Duty to succeed

Up until now, Seehofer's foreign policy has not prompted Merkel to change course. Not even the push in Moscow to loosen EU economic sanctions against Russia - which are also hurting Bavarian exports - could change Merkel's mind.

But Seehofer measures success differently. For him, it's all about an absolute majority for the CSU in Bavaria. In other words, the opportunity to govern the state alone, without a coalition partner.

Unlike in Strauss' day, this is no longer a given. The refugee crisis, and the politicians profiting from it - the right-wing conservative Alternative for Germany (AfD) - make it even less of a certainty. Bavaria will hold elections in 2018. Seehofer's plan had been to retire then, and pass the torch in a neat and orderly fashion to a new generation with a comfortable balance of power for the CSU. He's convinced that only then will the CSU have the necessary clout to make its voice heard in Berlin, despite being a regional party.

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