Merkel Rebuked on Stage by Bavarian Ally in Clash Over Refugees

What the Refugee Crisis Means for Europe's Economy
  • Sister party insists on refugee cap in challenge to Merkel
  • Conflict highlights pitfalls after 10 years in power

German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew a rebuke from the leader of her Bavarian sister party in a face-to-face clash over refugee policy, underscoring the tension in her coalition as she faces the biggest challenge of her 10 years in power.

Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer seized the opportunity of sharing the stage with Merkel on Friday to hammer home his demand for a cap on migration, shortly after she reaffirmed her rejection in a speech to his Christian Social Union in Munich. He suggested the chancellor was out of step with voters that last re-elected Merkel two years ago.

“We’re firmly convinced that public backing won’t be possible in the long term if we don’t have an upper limit for refugees,” Seehofer, the most prominent critic of Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees, told applauding party members as Merkel looked on silently on stage.

The conflict exposes Merkel’s fragile domestic harmony as she focuses on international diplomacy to secure Europe’s outer border while upholding freedom of movement within the European Union. Germany is expecting at least 800,000 people fleeing war and poverty to arrive this year, including many Syrians, with Bavaria as the main entry point.

Even as Seehofer expressed confidence that the CSU and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union would find a solution, the chancellor stuck to her position that Germany is morally and legally obliged to accept everyone who qualifies for asylum. She left the venue after Seehofer’s response without further remarks.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Merkel is betting her political future on persuading Germans they can cope with the biggest influx since World War II, risking the standing she’s built up since first taking the oath of office a decade ago Sunday.

No Hiding

“Hiding away and doing nothing are no solutions in the 21st century,” she said before the CSU leader’s speech. Although she received polite applause from her Bavarian sister party, CSU youth members whistled and waved signs calling for migration limits as she entered the convention hall. 

As towns and cities struggle to shelter and feed refugees and winter approaches, support for Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc has declined in polls while Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which advocates immigration limits, has gained. The CDU stumbled to 37.5 percent from 42 percent in September, while the AfD has doubled its support to 7 percent, according to an Allensbach poll for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper published Thursday. The Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partners, were unchanged at 26 percent in the Nov. 1-12 poll.

Even so, 56 percent of Germans consider Merkel to be a strong chancellor, according to Allensbach. And while her approval ratings have taken a hit with the refugee crisis, 60 percent said they didn’t think another politician would do a better job.

Paris Attacks

The chancellor had appeared to mollify Seehofer with an agreement on Nov. 5 that includes restrictions on economic migrants from regions such as the Balkans. The Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris exposed the precarious nature of the deal when Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Soeder said on Twitter that the carnage “changes everything” and “we can’t allow illegal and uncontrolled migration.” Seehofer rebuked his minister, saying the two matters are separate.

At the party convention, Seehofer sought to placate and threaten at the same time.

“We’ll reach agreement somehow in the end,” he said. “You’ve said yourself that Horst Seehofer and Angela Merkel -- pardon me, Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer -- have always found a solution. If that’s your motto for the weeks ahead, you’re very cordially invited to come here again.”

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