Chancellor Angela Merkel earned a brief respite on Monday from the increasingly public feud over migration policy within her ruling coalition that threatens to bring an abrupt end to her long reign as German leader.
Mrs Merkel’s uneasy three-month coalition is facing its sternest test following demands by her conservative Bavarian allies for stricter new rules that would allow them to turn away migrants at German borders. Mrs Merkel has refused to budge, saying that the plan would hamper her ability to negotiate a pan-European settlement over migration this month.
The acrimony has reached such a pitch that her anti-migration interior minister Horst Seehofer told colleagues that he “can’t work with this woman any more”, according to German media reports.
The row has highlighted Mrs Merkel’s weakness as leader after disastrous elections last year forced her to strike deals with former foes to form a government. Her government has hardened its migration policy after a surge in support for right-wing parties at the polls who opposed Mrs Merkel’s previous open-door policy. More than 1.6 million migrants have arrived in Germany since 2014, more than any other nations in the European Union.
Mr Seehofer wants to reject migrants already registered in another European Union nation and his dispute with Mrs Merkel has escalated in the past week. She believes any unilateral move by her to curb her policy on migrants would undermine her authority. Under current law, anybody who lodges an asylum request at Germany’s borders is admitted to the country.
The migration issue has risen to the top of the European political agenda again after Italy’s new government this month refused to accept migrants plucked from the Mediterranean. It forced one rescue ship with more than 600 people on board to make a three-day journey to Spain.
The rise of anti-migration governments in Hungary, Austria, Poland and other countries has threatened to divide the 28-nation European Union and makes it difficult for Mrs Merkel to secure a broad deal at a summit in Brussels on June 28 to 29.
Mr Seehofer said Monday that Mrs Merkel would be given until the summit to try to reach some broader deal.
"We wish the chancellor much luck," Seehofer told a news conference in Munich. "This is not about winning time or anything like that, but rather that in July, if there is no result at European level, we must implement this.”
That would mean that Mrs Merkel would probably have to secure some concessions at the summit or risk the ending of the 70-year alliance between her Christian Democrats and Mr Seehofer’s Bavaria-only Christian Social Union. It would likely mean new elections and the end of Mrs Merkel’s leadership.
“Mrs Merkel is the big loser,” said Leopold Traugott, an analyst for the Open Europe think tank. “This just shows how weak she has become domestically. The pressure on her will increase.
“Germany’s refugee policies have already become stricter over the last two to three years,” he said. “I think the same will happen on an EU level – and Germany will play its part in that.”
Mr Traugott said that the dispute has a strong domestic dimension, with Mr Seehofer’s party concerned that it could lose ground in Bavaria to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party if it does not tighten its migration policy.
“We must show the world that it is no longer the case that anybody who sets foot on European soil can come to Germany,” a senior CSU lawmaker Alexander Dobrindt said on Monday at a meeting of his party’s leadership in Munich, according to officials.
Mrs Merkel is also seeking to strike deals with regional partners including Greece and Italy. She was due to meet her Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte to discuss the crisis on Monday.
Her allies have argued that unilaterally stopping migrants at German borders would shift the problem to countries like Italy, which has received large numbers of migrants from North Africa because of its position on the Mediterranean.