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How Merkel Survives a Revolt Over Migrants

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Chancellor Angela Merkel proved this weekend that her political survival wasn't in question.

The challenge had come from Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU. He had set a deadline of Halloween for Merkel to decide how she was going to curb the influx of asylum seekers, most of whom were crossing the Austrian border into Bavaria. If she failed to stem the tide,  he had threatened to consider his options. He even reportedly thought about recalling the four CSU ministers from the government. Losing Germany's second-biggest state by population and economic output would have been a major defeat for Merkel and her party, but she nipped the rebellion in the bud.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

The chancellor met with Seehofer on Saturday, seemingly respecting his deadline. The joint position paper that resulted appeared to reflect Seehofer's demand that Merkel prevail upon Austria to stop the immigrants at the border and take other measures to reduce the influx. On the surface, the agreement gave Seehofer enough to say he was "satisfied for now" without losing face. In practice, however, the paper mostly describes what the government is already doing, such as setting up a joint police coordination center with Austria or working with Turkey to keep refugees from leaving the camps there for Europe. No cap on immigration is promised, and the only proposed new measures are the establishment of "transit zones" on Germany's  borders and a two-year ban on family reunification for people under subsidiary protection -- a class of immigrants who are not recognized as refugees but whose return to their homeland is deemed unsafe.

To some, the transit zones sound like filtration camps or detention centers, and Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the center-left SPD party, the junior partner in Merkel's ruling coalition, has objected to them on these grounds. "Instead of big, uncontrollable detention zones on the borders we need more registration centers inside Germany," he said. Yet Merkel probably will be able to persuade him that what she has in mind is more like the transit areas in airports. The idea is that asylum seekers from "safe countries" -- primarily the Balkan states, some African nations and certain areas of Afghanistan -- and those without papers will have to stay in the zones for two days while their applications are being processed. If they are rejected, they would have to go home or file papers in a German court, which would be required to rule within 14 days. If that doesn't happen, the asylum seekers would be allowed to enter Germany.

In other words, the German authorities are keen to prevent refugee camps at the borders. Yet it's good for Merkel that Gabriel and some rights groups don't like the transit zone idea: As leader of a conservative party, she needs to differentiate herself  from passionately pro-immigration leftists. The chancellor needs to make CDU voters see she is not really in favor of an indiscriminate open-door policy.

In fact, that isn't her position. Last month, a hastily passed asylum law took effect, replacing applicants' 143 euro ($158) allowance with food stamps and making it almost impossible for Bosnians, Kosovars and other Balkan natives to apply. The stream of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia started drying up as the bill went through the German parliament: Potential migrants are aware of the rules and politics of their desired destinations. The law also added police and migration service personnel, though not enough to cope with the current flow of 10,000 asylum seekers a day.

Merkel has been working quietly and doggedly to make Germany a less attractive destination for economic immigrants, without discouraging those fleeing violence. Nonetheless, they will be required to learn German and integrate. The Merkel-Seehofer position paper stresses that, too, saying the CDU/CSU wouldn't allow a version of multiculturalism in which immigrants want no part of local culture.

The handling of Germany's refugee situation bears Merkel's imprint: Her method involves working out a compromise with critics from the right and left. Then, those charged with implementing the plan muddle through. This has given rise to new slang term: merkeln -- a verb conveying inaction and indecision. Merkel, however, is neither idle nor irresolute: She governs by adopting a principle and then looking for a way to uphold it under changing conditions.

By her own standards, she is firmly in control, and in today's Germany, no other standards matter. It's difficult to imagine what could unseat her; disagreements with allies and coalition partners certainly won't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net