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Seehofer threatens to quit in asylum row, will keep talking

Ben Knight Berlin
July 1, 2018

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has confirmed his offer to resign rather than back down from his stance on migration. He will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU on Monday for last-ditch talks.

Horst Seehofer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has confirmed his offer to resign both from the Cabinet and as CSU leader within the next three days, after unexpectedly re-escalating his standoff with Chancellor Angela Merkel over Germany's asylum policy.

But, according to reports from a crunch leadership meeting in Munich that stretched into early Monday morning, other senior party figures had tried to dissuade Seehofer from stepping down. A press conference that had been expected all evening was eventually postponed, before Seehofer appeared briefly before reporters to confirm the reports of his resignation offer. He did say, however, that he was going to seek one more talk with Merkel on Monday about asylum policy before deciding on his future. 

"In the interest of this country and the capacity of this government, which we want to maintain, we want to make an attempt to find an agreement on this central question of turning people away [at the German border]," he said. "Everything else will be decided afterward."

Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had said earlier that his talks with the chancellor on Saturday had "not had any effect" on their conflict.

This was a direct contradiction of Merkel's account of the encounter, delivered in an interview with the public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday. Merkel argued that the deal reached by the European Union would have the same effect as the CSU's calls to start sending people away at the border if they had already applied for asylum in another EU member state.

"The sum of everything we have decided has the same effect [as national measures]," she said. "That is my personal conclusion. Of course, the CSU will have to decide that for itself."

Read more: Seehofer: CSU does not want to topple Merkel over migration spat

Working together?

The chancellor also said she had made concessions to Seehofer's demands. "I would like very much for the CDU and CSU to continue working together," she added. "Because we are a success story for Germany."

The leaderships of the CDU and CSU met separately in Berlin and Munich on Sunday to discuss whether and how the two parties, which have been allied since 1949, will continue to work together. The CSU is facing a state election in Bavaria in October, and has opted to take a hard-line anti-immigration stance as its main campaign strategy.

The move is part of an effort to defend the party's absolute majority in Bavaria's state parliament and win back voters from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). At the end of the AfD's party congress in Augsburg on Sunday, AfD politicians said the CSU's asylum policy changes didn't go far enough.

The chancellor's claim that the CSU's demands had been fulfilled by the EU deal was contradicted by some CSU politicians entering the meeting in Munich, who maintained that it was up to the party to decide. There is also a difference of opinion between the parties about whether the EU deal allows unilateral action by member states on closing borders or not.

Sunday's long-planned TV interview with Merkel — an annual event before parliament's summer recess — could barely have been scheduled at a more inconvenient moment for the chancellor, as at the same time the CDU was preparing to meet for vital talks across town in Berlin. She refused to comment on any speculative questions related to her asylum policy and the government crisis, preferring to wait until the CDU and CSU had concluded their talks.

She vehemently defended the deals she had struck in Brussels last week, when she gave a number of concessions to other EU countries. But right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland have since said they have not reached any new deals on asylum.

Open EU a thing of the past?

Where is the 'master plan'?

The CDU leadership in Berlin was reduced to waiting for developments from CSU headquarters. Shortly after the reports of Seehofer's possible resignation, CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared before reporters to reaffirm the party's commitment to Merkel's asylum policy.

"Unilateral rejections [of asylum-seekers] would in our opinion be the wrong signal for our European partners," she said, before adding that the deals reached in Brussels provided a good basis for the reduction of migration.

The interior minister's "master plan," which triggered the present German government crisis just over two weeks ago, would see asylum-seekers who had already been registered elsewhere being shut out of Germany — a potential breach of EU law and the Geneva Convention on refugees' rights.

Read more: Europe's Schengen Area: What you need to know

After Merkel rejected the plan, Seehofer set the chancellor a deadline of July 1 to find a "European solution" to the issue of "secondary migration," referring to asylum-seekers crossing internal EU borders after having already applied elsewhere in the EU.

Though the master plan remains unpublished, it emerged on Sunday evening that Seehofer had handed it out at the CSU meeting, though it had not been made available to the CDU leadership in Berlin. Photos of individual pages of the plan were circulated on Twitter, which confirmed that Seehofer still intended to turn asylum-seekers away.

When Merkel rejected the plan two weeks ago, Seehofer threatened to unilaterally implement his border control measures, using his authority as interior minister over the federal police. In turn, Merkel threatened to overrule him.

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight