Putting Germany's Governmental Crisis in Context


By Max Lein

Merkel's government was in deep crisis. Horst Seehofer, Minister of the Interior and the head of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), had announced that he intended to instruct border police to start border checks and refuse entry to refugees who have filed for asylum in another European country — against the expressed objection of Chancellor Angela Merkel. This confrontation between Seehofer's CSU and Merkel's center-right CDU (Christian Democratic Union) caught everyone off guard and threatened the ruling coalition formed by these two “sister parties” and the center-left Social Democrats. For if Seehofer issued his decree, Chancellor Merkel would have to sack him — which would invariably lead to the CSU leaving the ruling coalition and therefore an end of the current coalition government. A break-up would leave Europe's biggest economy without a functioning government at a critical time.

The immediate crisis was averted, but at great cost: surprisingly, Merkel acquiesced to most of Seehofer's demands. Most notably, she agreed to the creation of “transit centers” (Transitzentren) where asylum seekers may be held for up to 48 hours. The purpose of these temporary holding facilities is to allow German police to check whether asylum seekers have requested asylum in a different country — and send them back to that country if possible.

But Merkel's troubles are far from over, and this could really be the beginning of the end of the era Merkel.

The special relationship between the sister parties CDU and CSU

Germany has a coalition government consisting of three parties, Merkel's CDU, Seehofer's CSU and the SPD. Getting there was arduous, it took 4 months until all three parties signed and ratified the coalition agreement. One of the main stumbling blocks was to agree on common policy positions regarding immigration.

However, the relationship between CDU and CSU is completely different than that to other parties. Both are conservative parties, but the CSU is up for election only in the state of Bavaria whereas the CDU competes only in the other 15 states. That is why these two parties, which are called “sister parties”, have been in a permanent coalition since 1949 with the exception of a four weeks in the 1970s.

The CSU not only sees itself as a conservative party, but also as the representative of Bavaria on the stage of federal politics. In contrast, all other parties where the interests of many states have to be balanced also when it comes to inter-party politics. This gave Bavaria an outsized footprint on the federal level.

So Minister Seehofer and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder were not just willing to break a coalition, but sever this special bond between Merkel's CDU and the CSU for short-term political gain. The moves by the CSU were extremely unpopular, even amongst CSU supporters about half thought it was a mistake. And it is quite likely that this episode will impact the relationship between these two parties for years to come.

State elections in Bavaria

The main motivation of Seehofer, who is also the head of the CSU, and Bavaria's prime minister Söder are the upcoming elections in Bavaria. Since 1957 the CSU has ruled Bavaria, often with an absolute majority.

The CSU is on average more conservative than its sister party — one of their mottos coined by CSU icon Franz Josef Strauß is that there should be no party to the right of the CSU. Now such a party has appeared in German politics, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). According to recent polls, however, the CSU no longer has an absolute majority whereas the AfD is currently tied for second place with the Green Party in the polls. That was one contributing factor why Seehofer was “promoted” from Munich (the state capital), where he served as prime minister for the state, to Berlin (as Minister of the Interior). (For prime ministers of all other 15 states, this would indeed be a promotion. Not so in Bavaria, where in jest people would call the prime minister King of Bavaria.)

Now his former rival turned Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder intends to leave his mark and defend the absolute majority the CSU currently has in the Bavarian parliament. And his strategy is to move to the right to take the oxygen from the AfD. In a very unusual step, Bavarian Prime Minister Söder has met Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to discuss the formation of an “axis of the willing” to tackle the refugee crisis (them reviving the term “axis” in this context is either the product of astounding historical tone deafness or a deliberate provocation). Needless to say, the Baviarian prime minister does not represent Germany when it comes to foreign affairs.

Die Mitte: Merkel's pathway to electoral success

Angela Merkel has won all of her elections in the center crowding out the SPD. You can see the slogan “Die Mitte”, German for “the center”, in lots of places in the federal head quarters for the CDU.

During her tenure the Union have abandoned what were once the defining policy positions of these two conservative parties, among them the strict opposition to make civil unions of homosexual couples fully equal to heterosexual marriage, support for mandatory military service, being in favor of nuclear power and a reputation for being “financially conservative”. All of these positions have now been given up during one of Merkel's four terms: the universal draft was put on hold. Merkel allowed an open vote just before the 2017 election on making gay marriage fully equal to marriage between heterosexuals. After Fukushima Merkel reneged on her extension of the operating licenses of existing nuclear power plants (which cost the tax payer billions). And nowadays all German parties want to have a balanced budget, and the policy disagreements are about what to do with the budget surplus (pay back debt? lower taxes? invest in infrastructure? improve the social safety net?). (Note that all of these positions have overwhelming support amongst the Germany population, including conservative voters.)

The more conservative wing of the CDU has long lamented the loss of what they perceive as the CDU's ideological core, and they attribute the electoral successes of the AfD to Merkel leaving too much room on the right. Up until then Merkel's electoral successes and her aptitude to put her allies in key party positions protected her from such criticism — until now.

The future direction of the CDU: staying in the center or moving back to the right?

The surge of popularity of the AfD has made things quite difficult because the CDU has to make a decision on the federal level: do they want to stay in the middle (that’s Merkel’s recipe for success until now) and accept that the more conservative voters migrate to the AfD? Or do they move back to the right in an attempt to push the AfD out of Germany's parliaments?

At least when it comes to electoral strategies there is no clear answer, because the different states’s CDU chapters have different preferences: in some states the CDU won the elections in the middle, in others like Saxonia they won the elections on the right. So depending on the state, their politicians want to put their finger on the scale one way or the other to either keep the CDU in the center or nudge the party to the right.

Immigration as the key differentiator between the parties

The new demarkation line is, not surprisingly, immigration and by extension how to deal with the asylum seekers that have come to Europe. A large part of the German population does not see Germany as a country of immigrants, but a country of ethnically German people, i. e. you can only be German if you were born to ethnically German parents. That stance towards immigration has softened somewhat but is still very much prevalent in large parts of the population.

Nowadays roughly 13 % of people living in Germany do not have Germany citizenship, and another 10 % are “recent” immigrants with German citizenship. This corresponds to a significant increase from the levels in 2011 where only 8.5 % of the population were immigrants. To put this into perspective, according to the 2009 census 12.6 % of the US population was born abroad. Among the younger population, the percentages are even higher. Despite that, serious efforts such as language courses to ease the integration of immigrants into German society are relatively recent. Given these numbers, it is fair to say that as a matter of fact Germany is a country of immigration, but does not (yet?) have a society of immigration.

A lot of German people feel overwhelmed by the speed of change, and there is a feeling there has been “enough” migration. This is the political environment that gave birth to the right-wing AfD and re-invigorated the more conservative elements of CDU and CSU.

The aftermath

Nobody came out of this crisis a winner.

On a European level the big problem is the Dublin Convention that stipulates that refugees have to ask for asylum in the country they arrive in — unless other countries voluntarily take them in. Geography puts the brunt of the burden on Italy, Greece and, to a lesser degree, Spain and France. Note that the South of Italy and Greece are already amongst the poorest regions in Europe that have been hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Countries such as Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany on the other hand benefit from the Dublin Convention, because by virtue of geography they have no obligation to take care of the refugees. Many Eastern European countries including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria strictly oppose taking on any new refugees.

So you have countries that have essentially no choice but to accept refugees and others who have the luxury of deciding whether or not to take refugees.


The popularity of Seehofer, who announced and then un-announced his resignation as Minister of the Interior, took a nose dive. He is now tasked with solving the (impossible) problem he insisted on solving. As Germany's Minister of the Interior is now tasked with negotiating bilateral agreements with Italy, Austria and other impacted countries that regulate how refugees are distributed and whether any will be taken back. Given the diametrically opposed interests of the various players, it is very hard to see how to arrive at meaningful compromises. If Germany and Austria adopt a hard stance and simply refuse entry to refugees registered in Italy, Italy may just stop registering immigrants, for example.

For the CSU at large Seehofer's predicament may not be such a big problem: at age 69 he is at the end of his career. But so far public opinion is staunchly opposed to the CSU's tactics, and polls currently indicate that it is unlikely that the CSU will be able to maintain its absolute majority in this year's election.

They will also have to pay the price for their behavior on the federal level at least.


Angela Merkel had to renege on her policy position of keeping Germany's borders open in exchange for her government. On the European stage, she had to acquiesce to the pressure of many of the other governments who had already shifted to the right on immigration. Her only win is that Seehofer is in charge of mission impossible now, and up until he has closed agreements with Austria, Italy and other key countries, little will change on the ground. Furthermore, Seehofer still is not keeping quiet, he has sent a letter to the European Union in support of a more lenient stance towards Britain in the Brexit negotiations only to be rebuked by a follow-up letter by Merkel. Under any other circumstances this would be grounds for termination, but this indicates the loss of respect for Merkel and the amount by which Merkel's political power has diminished.

The CDU at large is also worse off. Even though in spirit quite a few members of the CDU are in favor of a harder line when it comes to immigration, neither the timing nor the methods of the CSU were appreciated. Not only was there no one to take Merkel's place, the CSU's gambit has weakened the CDU and Germany as a whole. As a result, the CSU could not even count on the support of the CDU's conservative wing.


Lastly, the SPD, the third coalition partner, was not party to the negotiations of the compromise between both parties of the Union. And their reaction to the whole affair was rather meek: they staunchly opposed the transit camps in 2015 and prevented similar measures in the coalition agreement from February 2018. Nevertheless, also they were faced with the decision of being the one who broke the coalition or bow to the pressure, they chose the latter.

Closing thoughts

I would like to close with an important point: just like many contributions to the political debate this blog post so far centered around the mechanics of politics, the tactics and strategies employed by the various actors and how they beat their political opponent. At this stage we are talking about politics as if it were a sports game, and we forget the impact policies have on people. Moreover, we may forget that we are implicitly adopting the framing of the issues as dictated by these political actors, and that there are other, more insightful ways of looking at the problem.

Ultimately, the CSU focussed on the discussion that by his ministry's own admission currently impacts 150 people per month out of thousands. In the grand scheme of things, these are a drop in the bucket. But it furthers the illusion that adopting harsher immigration policies would have any tangible effect on the overall trends. And during the last three weeks, the self-inflicted governmental crisis sucked the oxygen from all other political discussions (Brexit, how to evolve the EU, Europe's relation to the US in the age of Trump, a looming housing crisis in big cities, etc.).

More importantly, we are forgetting why people migrate — they simply want to have a better life for themselves. We forget that the very things that make our first-world countries such a great place for us to live in are the very same things that make them so appealing to others. We forget that our societies are great because of the mercy and generosity we give to each other. Much of the purported policy solutions either aim at criminalization of migration or adopting policies that make our countries less attractive to other potential migrants. And that includes making it harder to get a proper legal status with the help of bureaucratic distinctions between (ineligible) “economic migrants” and “legitimate” asylum seekers, forcing immigrants into “transit centers” (or whatever other moniker you give them) or, as was the case in the US, taking children away from their parents solely as a punitive measure. Doesn't that diminish ourselves and make our countries a less desirable place to live in for ourselves?

Germany and many of the other European countries have not shown the necessary solidarity to their immediate neighbors, and this will have a price. Italy's new populist government's critical stance towards the EU is completely understandable in view of what has happened. Europe did not offer a solution and left these very poor countries alone for years, and it is not surprising that many Italians have started to believe that Europe is not part of the solution. For if we do not extend our helping hand to our neighbors, how can we expect that they will once we are in a time of need?

And regardless of what we believe should happen, our policy solutions will eventually encounter reality on the ground. Africa's population is growing very quickly and currently 40-50 % is under 20. There will soon be a huge number of people who will look for a better life, because their home country cannot provide them with sufficient opportunities. Seemingly never ending wars in the Middle East are contributing factors, as are unfair trade policies (imposed also by the EU, especially when it comes to agricultural goods) and global climate change. The US has a similar problem with migration from Latin America.

Europe will not be able to hermetically seal its borders should these immigrants decide to head to Europe en masse to have a better life. These are facts on the ground independently of one's ideological leanings. Whether we see this as a chance, something that can be managed, a burden or something to be feared is largely up to us.