Germany: Two Developments

Published on June 18, 2018

We would put the odds as uncomfortably close to even that German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not survive the rebellion against her by the Bavarian Christian Social Union and its allies within her own Christian Democratic Union over the migrant crisis.

But two developments in the last 24 hours may help the embattled German Chancellor, at least in the immediate weeks after the June 27-28 European Summit that are shaping up into the next key political flashpoint on whether she survive the latest challenge to her government.

*** The first is President Trump’s entering the fray by tweet earlier today, which on the margin looks to be bolstering Merkel’s support. The other is a more substantial prospect the CDU may offer its own candidates to run in the October 14 Bavarian state elections. That would be an existential threat to the CSU. ***

*** It is our sense, however, that the policy differences between the centrist CDU and its Social Democratic allies, and the CSU and its allies within the CDU and the Free Democrats look likely to only deepen in the months ahead, meaning a very weakened German government going forward, with or without Merkel at the helm. ***

The Trump Factor

A truce of sorts seems to have been negotiated between Merkel and Horst Seehofer, her Interior Minister and leader of the CSU, until she returns to Berlin after the June 27-28 European Summit.

Both Merkel and Seehofer offered conciliatory rhetoric earlier on Monday, which helped to ease the sense of crisis.

But then President Trump entered the volatile German political dynamics with a tweet offering praise that “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition.” He also claimed that “crime that is way up” in Germany due to migrants as a reason the US must pursue a hardline immigration policy.

Although Trump’s tweet pivoting to Germany was partly in response to rising domestic press criticism of his administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, it stunned Berlin that the United States would be so explicitly interfering in its domestic politics.

But it looks to be rallying political support to Merkel’s side within the ranks of the CDU, the Social Democrats, and Greens. On the margin, it should help her stand her ground with the CSU, especially if the German media picks up on it.

And the broader and more public that support becomes, the more likely she will be emboldened to defy the CDU dissidents, like her Health Minister Jens Spahn, who has been increasingly aligning with the CSU.

Spahn, in fact, has been drawing considerable support in a close relationship with the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who has already been actively supporting the CSU and CDU rebels, much to the consternation of the Merkel government.

A Threatened CDU Slate in Bavarian Elections

The other potential boost to Merkel is more substantial: the CSU has apparently become much more sensitive to the risk that if they push the rebellion against Merkel too far and too quickly, the CDU could retaliate by putting up their own slate of CDU candidates to run in the October 14 Bavarian state elections.

Such a move would in effect end the post-war understanding between the CDU and CSU in working together in federal level politics; doing so would almost certainly take away enough CSU voters or rally SPD/Green voters to the CDU to ensure the CSU loses its majority control of Bavaria. And without control of Bavaria, the CSU would find itself facing an existential threat to its survival.

The AfD in any case will continue to press with its “Merkel needs to go” campaign, keeping the CSU on the defensive as long as Merkel stays in power. The rebellion by the CSU and the rightwing of the CDU will thus continue to build, largely because the CSU leadership has concluded they cannot win with Merkel in power.

But with a mid-August deadline for filing candidate names in Bavarian races, the CSU will need to be careful until then. That potentially means the CSU leadership may need to tone down any attacks on Merkel in early July if she returns from the European Summit with little in the way of concessions on the migrant issues.

Since few politicians will want to take this rebellion so far that it upends annual holiday plans in August, that probably means it won’t be until September, when the Bavarian campaigns get seriously underway, that Merkel’s hold on power will be tested. Assuming that is, that she survives July, for which she may have Trump to thank.

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