The Christian Union. A staunch alliance of the CDU and CSU, the bastion of German conservatism that has dominated the Bundestag since the days of West Germany. Yet last week, a fracture emerged; the refugee crisis threatened to devour this special relationship, initiating the collapse of the coalition. Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and Interior Minister, demanded migrant holding centres in response to public backlash against Merkel’s open border policy. An agreement for a 48 hour screening of migrants to send them back to their country of registration calmed this heated rift in the political sphere. Yet this split in German politics threatens to turn German policy away from the open borders they have sought to sustain. And it has the power to transform migrant policy across the continent – bringing down Schengen with it.
Germany has absorbed more refugees than any other EU nation since the wave of Middle Eastern and North African migration began. With 12mn Germans expelled from Eastern Europe following the fall of the Nazis, Merkel has sought to recreate the culture of acceptance that enabled these Germans to settle elsewhere. Yet with over 1mn people having flooded into its borders, Merkel’s belief in ‘Wir Schaffen Das’ – We Can Do It – is being placed under increasing strain. And since they enter largely through the Southern States, it is this geographical asymmetry in disruption caused by migrants that has fuelled the divide in the Christian Union.
German law forbids the two parties from competing in the same states – with Merkel’s CDU taking the Northern regions, leaving the South to the CSU. Yet it is these Southern states who have been most hostile to refugees, and are most susceptible to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the AfD. Seehofer resigned as Minister President of Bavaria following a 10% slump in the 2017 election, a result of voter dissent with the influx of migrants. Merkel’s open border policy was causing serious damage to her ally’s electoral performance, driving Mr Seehofer towards a nationalist, anti-immigration solution to refugee integration.
Whilst the ‘Deutschland Drama’ between Merkel and Seehofer has never been short of conflict, such political rumblings remained merely background noise as Merkel rose to the premier of Europe. Yet now, the enormity of the divide on the migrant issue has shaken the conservative bloc. Seehofer is symbolic of German nationalism, imitating the AfD in his belief that “Islam does not belong in Germany”. Threatening to take Merkel’s insistence on open borders to the German Constitutional Court, Seehofers’ alignment is moving further from traditional conservatism and towards radical nationalism in an attempt to appease voters. The resolution for a 48 hour screening is but a temporary peace in a long war. Courting Merkel’s foes including Orban and Putin, Seehofer has proven a thorn in the Cabinet whose actions imperil the solidity of the Conservative bloc, ever since its last brief split in 1976.
If Germany does succumb to Seehofer and the AfD’s pressure, the post-war European project for freedom of movement is at risk of total disintegration. Unilateral German action could ignite a flame of border controls across Europe. Both Italy and Austria have threatened border controls following the Interior Ministers demands, with Austrian premier Sebastian Kurz declaring “full confidence in Seehofer’s words”. Schengen has been symbolic of European unity, replacing a fractured continent from centuries of war with an integrated system of peace. Yet the shock of the refugee crisis is the most significant test of European harmony to date.
The survival of Schengen rests in Germany’s hands. Whilst Germany may not yield the dominance it used to, its actions still send shockwaves across the continent. This test of the Christian Union, the backbone of German politics, is not yet over. If borders are tightened in Germany, the founding European principle of freedom of movement may crumble. Political struggle in Germany has the power to determine the future of European unity; only an open and accepting stance can protect it.