In the immediate wake of the deal struck in Brussels after nine straight hours of negotiations at the European Summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks to have quelled the revolt by her Christian Social Union sister party. Indeed, the CSU hunters have in some sense now become the hunted.
*** Merkel will be returning to Berlin and going into the CDU party conference on Sunday with enough concessions from the Summit to solidify her position within CDU, whose rank and file will rally around her, including those on its right who were sympathetic to the CSU attacks. It is now Interior Minister and CSU party leader Horst Seehofer who is scrambling to save his position in the government. ***
*** Merkel is hardly likely to sack Seehofer as he is all but certain to back down on his threat to unilaterally enforce tough border policies. But his political fate now largely depends on how the CSU sorts out the political debacle of their own making and, in particular, the next moves by Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder, who has been the true power behind the scenes stoking the Merkel rebellion. ***
*** Merkel herself could still be brought down in the CSU infighting, albeit a low probability. In the months ahead, the CSU is likely to only harden its right-tilting demands within the government to defend its conservative credentials against the Alternative for Deutschland. Although the immediate political crisis has been defused, Merkel’s Grand Coalition remains fragile, and vulnerable to renewed pressures in the run up to the October 13 Bavarian elections. ***
Merkel’s Reversal of Fortune
It is worth recounting a few points of color in Merkel’s remarkable turnaround — yet once again — in her battles to face down would be domestic political challenges to her Chancellorship:
Merkel went into the EU Summit with a weakened hand like never before in her 13 years as Chancellor and always invariably driving the European agenda. Gloomy headlines about an Italian demand that threatened to derail the Summit, and a cancelled press conference only proved to heighten how remarkable the turn was in the Summit’s waning eight hours of negotiations.
In one of the more ironic turns, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stepped up first to offer a way out of the political impasse, bolstering the concessions by Spain and France to support Merkel.
Key concessions instead emerged by the Summit’s end, including new (albeit voluntary) measures to share asylum seekers and a vague statement in the final test on the need for EU states to combat “secondary migration.” More importantly, Merkel won secondary agreements from Spain and Greece to accept the return of migrants in Germany who first arrived in their respective countries.
Even Austria got cold feet about the political mess they would have to clean up just as they take up the EU Presidency if the CSU followed through on their unilateral border policy threats. A key moment came when even Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, something of the “Darling of the CSU,” issued a public “warning” to Germany that Austria would have to follow suit with unilateral measures if borders were closed.
Unilateral versus Multi-lateral
Unilateral versus multi-lateral policy — by that the Germans mean “nationalist” versus European policy that has been sacrosanct in the post-war period and made an article of faith by former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl — was in fact the bridge over which Merkel was able to step across the political abyss created in the CSU rebellion. If he is lucky, perhaps Seehofer will as well.
Indeed it was exactly on this point that Bavarian Prime Minister Soeder committed a fatal error in the days before the Summit. In criticizing Merkel to draw on support from the CDU dissident ranks, he went too far in attacking Germany’s multilateral — that is, European — policy framework as “out of date, and in need of being replaced.”
But few in Germany except the AfD are prepared to push a unilateral policy move so hard it would question Germany’s commitment to the “European idea.” Soeder couldn’t backpedal fast enough and it quickly became a game changer for Merkel to rally her troops: the CSU attacks were no longer just about her, but an attack on the Köhl legacy as well.
Once Merkel came back to Berlin with enough concessions from the EU to claim a German victory, Soeder himself pulled the plug on the rebellion.
Seehofer and Merkel Still Tethered
The CSU must decide by Monday whether to accept the Brussels agreement and the CDU is now in the position to expect, and demand, that the CSU Board fall in line in the CSU party meeting on Sunday.
Seehofer’s fate will still depend on Soeder’s next move. The Bavarian Prime Minister could, in theory, still press the CSU to call for Seehofer to follow through on the unilateral border enforcement. It would put the Interior Minister in an impossible Hobson’s Choice, either to resign rather than undertake a suicidal political step, or do it and be immediately dismissed by Merkel.
If the CSU is defiant, it could still mean the end of both Seehofer — and Merkel. As most members of the Bundestag will not be prepared to risk a schism and to face snap elections, the thinking in Berlin is that the Bundestag parliamentary groups will take matters into their own hands by turning against Merkel in an event of her sacking Seehofer.
Any such move by Soeder and the CSU Board would be high risk, and the CSU would be more likely than not to end up owning their own self-inflicted damage.
And with the CDU now fairly united behind Merkel, it seems far more likely the CSU, including Soeder, will back down and cling to a fig leaf of political cover arguing it was their efforts (and not the AfD) who forced the changes Merkel brought home. The AfD is already cleaning just that, and it is hard to CSU to displace their assertions, namely in that after having started the Merkel rebellion, she is still there.
Soeder, and his ally, CSU parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt — who many believe triggered the crisis by leaking Seehofer’s refugee “Masterplan” while it was still being discussed within the Cabinet — may still maneuver to push Seehofer, who lacks a power base much beyond his position as Interior Minister, out of the CSU leadership, to consolidate their grip on the CSU going into the October elections.
But that too would have its downside, in that it could make it apparent to a hungry German press that the entire political crisis was really about the CSU infighting and personal animosities towards Merkel who has outplayed them time after time.