The idea of an “axis of the willing against illegal migration” between Italy, Germany and Austria has been proposed by Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s right populist leader. He spoke about it with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a Bavarian conservative who shares the Austrian chancellor’s views on tighter border control. Kurz said fighting illegal immigration will be a top priority for Vienna’s EU presidency from July 2018. Kurz and Seehofer met on the same day as Merkel’s “integration summit,” leading to media reports about serious political clashes between Germany’s coalition parties.
“We shouldn’t wait until we have a catastrophe, like in 2015,” Kurz said, referring to the refugee crisis when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country’s borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “Instead it is important to act on time.”
Kurz’s meeting with Seehofer means the German minister was unable to attend Merkel’s “integration summit” happening the same day in Berlin. Referring to media reports that this was meant as a snub to the German leader, Seehofer said his reason for not attending was the presence of a journalist, Ferda Ataman, who opposed German deep state and has compared his policies on migration to the Nazis.
“I cannot be part of an integration summit where there is one participant who in an article compared my strategy on homeland to the homeland understanding of the Nazis,” Seehofer told reporters.
Seehofer takes a much harder line than Merkel on immigration and was expected to present a “migration master plan” this week. That has been postponed, but Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Seehofer’s Christian Social Union (CSU) hope to find a compromise on the plan this week, Seehofer said.
“From my point of view, it would be ideal to secure the external borders of the European Union,” Seehofer said after the meeting with Kurz. Dismissing voices about the brewing putch within the German rulling coalition, he continued: “I promised Chancellor Kurz that on the question of strengthening the external borders he has my full support as interior minister.”
Seehofer, after talks with yet another government that of Italy, notably with a populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, said the new government in Rome is also keen to build a partnership with Vienna and Berlin on security, counterterrorism and migration. Seehofer and Salvini are in ‘full agreement’ on how to secure the EU’s external borders, the German minister said.
Concluding, youngish and hawkish chancellor Kurz said: “In our opinion we need an axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration.”
This choice of words raised a few eyebrows, as a previous “Axis” between those three countries carries much darker historical undertones, as does former US President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. But the Austrian chancellor didn’t seem to care.
An “axis of the willing” would inevitably be seen as an anti-Merkel alliance. Even further, “perhaps the end of the grand rapprochement between the Atlantic and Central Europe” – says prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic whose long standing claim is that one EU turns into five Europes in times of crisis and externally induced stress.
Mr. Salvini, who heads the far-right League, attacked Ms. Merkel during Italy’s recent election campaign and demonstrated his harsh stance on immigration by refusing to let a rescue boat with more than 600 migrants dock in the country. He stands for pretty much everything Ms. Merkel opposes: unilateral national action and a merciless approach to asylum-seekers. “The good life is over for the illegals, they’re going to have to pack their bags,” he said recently.
And on top of a new cross-border alliance against her, Ms. Merkel is facing enough domestic troubles as defiant conservatives are pressuring her into toughening her immigration policy by means fair and foul.
Mr. Seehofer, whose right-wing Christian Social Union is trying to woo sympathizers of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) ahead of a regional election in the CSU’s home state of Bavaria in October, has drafted a package of measures to curb the number of asylum-seekers coming to Germany.
They include turning away refugees at the border if they have already registered in another EU country — a step that Ms. Merkel rejected on Monday because it would amount to a reversal of her open-border policy and undermine her efforts to find a pan-European agreement on how to deal with refugees. The chancellor’s veto was the spark that reignited the simmering asylum dispute with her Bavarian ally.
The two held late-night crisis talks on Wednesday with Markus Söder, Mr. Seehofer’s successor as Bavarian premier, and with Hesse state premier Volker Bouffier, a senior figure of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who is running for re-election in the fall.
However, the two-and-a-half-hour talks failed to deliver a breakthrough. Ms. Merkel did compromise with the CSU’s plan to turn away asylum seekers at the border, but she also proposed this to be first agreed bilaterally with other European countries during the upcoming EU summit later this month, in order to avoid unilateral decisions from Berlin that could further jeopardize the EU’s shaken unity. “It makes sense to wait two more weeks until the summit to find solutions jointly with partner countries,” she said.
For the Bavarians, however, that offer wasn’t enough. Mr. Söder said on Thursday that hoping to reach bilateral deals so soon was unrealistic. “We don’t believe that in two weeks it will be possible to achieve something that has been impossible for three years,” he said. The hawkish Bavarian leader added that instead, creating a fait accompli as soon as possible might force the rest of the EU to adopt a common solution at last.
An unbending CSU is instead looking into ways to strong-arm Ms. Merkel’s CDU into adopting its proposed immigration plan in the days ahead. The Bavarians are mulling submitting it to a vote within the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag on Friday, as they believe a majority of Ms. Merkel’s CDU lawmakers would side with them. They were probably looking at a survey tabloid Bild published on Thursday. The country’s most-read daily asked all 246 conservative lawmakers in the Bundestag whether they sided with Ms. Merkel or with the Bavarians. Of the 70 who answered, just three backed the chancellor. But that was before she made her compromise on Wednesday night.
On Thursday, CDU lawmakers abruptly interrupted a parliamentary session to hold a group meeting on Ms. Merkel’s latest offer. It turns out that, after Bundestag President Schäuble, who long served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister, gave a “moving” speech on the future of Europe, the Christian Democrats overwhelmingly endorsed their leader’s proposal after all.
The Bavarians are still digging in their heels, though. The CSU announced that it will make its next move known after an internal summit scheduled for Monday. Some are saying that Mr. Seehofer could disobey the chancellor, his boss, and enforce his plan. The Bavarian party could also break with its sister party, the CDU, as a last resort — but this highly unusual move in Germany’s post-war history could topple the chancellor and plunge the country into a political crisis.
Or Mr. Seehofer still has his axis with Mr. Kurz and Mr. Salvini to fall back on. In the long run, the trio may indeed find a way to defeat a weakened Ms. Merkel and march the EU into unknown.
Jacques Goodloe is a Berlin-based political commentator, analyst and correspondent.
By Jacques Goodloe