German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is hanging on by a thread. Last-ditch talks are underway between Merkel and interior minister Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU) over Germany’s migration policy. Seehofer wants migrants turned away at the border if they have sought asylum elsewhere in Europe, while Merkel wants an EU-wide deal. This standoff has caused Merkel to recant on her long-held beliefs and policies about migration.
How did this happen? Disagreements over migration policy between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and junior coalition partner CSU almost prevented Merkel from forming a government last year. Then, last month, Seehofer proposed tighter restrictions of Germany’s borders, threatening to defy Merkel and enact the restrictions with or without Merkel’s approval, daring her to remove him from his post, which would have led to a breakdown of the coalition between their two parties.
This sent Merkel on a frantic diplomatic tour of Europe in an effort to get EU members to agree on a new policy that would radically reduce the number of migrants and refugees who would be able to come to Europe, in the hopes of assuaging Seehofer and the CSU. Merkel has caved, reversing her previous position of absolute open borders and moving to toughen the entire continent’s migrant policy.
So what’s Merkel’s EU-wide plan? The idea is to set up detention centers in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain, where all refugees and migrants will be held while their asylum claims are processed. There is also a plan to set up similar detention centers in North Africa. Currently, migrants come to Europe, apply for asylum, and then, regardless of whether asylum is granted, usually end up staying anyway. Migrants also try to travel to the country with the most advantageous welfare benefits before applying for asylum.
In order to secure this deal among EU nations, Merkel had to agree that no EU members would be forced to take in any of those asylum-seekers once they were granted asylum. This represents an enormous win for central and eastern-European countries like Poland and Hungary, which have been locked in battle with the EU in recent years over their refusal to admit migrants based on the a quota system established in 2015 at the height of the migrant crisis.
The wave of populism that hit Europe in the wake of crisis prompted arguments that populist discontent was simply a racist and bigoted response to “foreigners.” There’s no doubt that that’s part of the picture. But what has been lost on many is that a lot of Europeans were rejecting policies that were being mandated from the EU headquarters in Brussels, without democratic assent. This has been a major driving force in national elections across Europe in recent years, as well as in the infamous Brexit vote to leave the EU.
What we are now witnessing is the next step in that evolution. Merkel decided in 2015 that open borders was the best, most sensible response to the massive influx of migrants, with little concern for the consequences to the political stability of Europe or democratic discontent. It wasn’t until that instability hit close to home that she was willing to change her tune. On Friday, she even went so far as to say that “no asylum seeker has the right to choose which country he will apply in.” Those are words that would never have come from Merkel’s lips, even a few months ago.
Merkel has finally woken up to the reality that things have changed in Europe. But whether the plan proves workable, and whether it saves her position of power remains to be seen.
A version of this essay first appeared in INBOUND, the weekly foreign policy newsletter from The Federalist.