Europe

How Angela Merkel Wins While Disappointing Everyone

No one is happy about her refugee deal, but her solution will work well enough for now.

Class is in session.

Photographer: Adam Berry/Getty Images

By accepting an upper limit to the number of immigrants Germany will accept for humanitarian reasons, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made one of her trademark compromises: no one is happy, but her solution will work well enough for now. Forming a governing coalition in the next few months will require a few more of these.

QuickTake Angela Merkel

On Monday, Merkel and Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, who leads the Christian Social Union party, announced that they had agreed to keep the number of asylum seekers, their family members, and other foreign humanitarian cases to 200,000, barring emergency situations. An immigration ceiling is something Seehofer and the CSU have demanded since 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers reached Germany, but Merkel has always refused to contemplate it. It was politically tricky back then: Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, the CSU's federal sister party, governed in coalition with pro-immigration Social Democrats (SPD), and Merkel knew that while she was likely to keep Seehofer's support in any case, the Social Democrats' backing was not assured. 

When a reporter asked Merkel at the press conference with Seehofer why she wouldn't set a limit earlier, she shrugged and said, "Everything in its own time." That was, despite its seeming evasiveness, a straight answer. In the September election, the CSU did badly in Bavaria, losing 10.5 percentage points compared with its 2013 result. Seehofer, who has always backed Merkel at critical moments, suddenly felt shaky; immediately after the election, he talked about "closing the right flank," which he felt was open to the nationalists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. He needed something to show the party rank and file and the disappointed voters back home, so he reminded Merkel that the CSU was also a coalition partner that could make demands. She played along by agreeing, for the first time, to a specific humanitarian immigration target. 

A satirical program on Bavarian TV tweeted a perfect depiction of the deal. The caption to a picture of mama Merkel cooing over resigned-looking baby Seehofer says, "Sweet Horstie, now you've got your number -- so be a good boy and go back to bed."

In practical terms, the limit means little. For one thing, the German federal migration agency received 135,000 first-time asylum applications in January through August, suggesting that the total number for the year is likely to be about 200,000 anyway. Besides, there's always some emergency situation or another. And finally, there's no legal way Germany can turn away a legitimate asylum seeker because he's number 200,001. As SPD legislator Frank Schwabe tweeted late on Sunday, when news of the deal first leaked: "Either the upper limit agreement is fake or it's against international law. Such symbolism politics is silly."

The AfD, of course, declared the compromise meaningless. "A limitless limit changes nothing," it trumpeted on its Facebook page. "It's not worth the paper it's written on." The AfD demands negative net migration -- something no mainstream party wants even to discuss.

Merkel, however, is giving the anti-immigrant conservatives something specific, too. The compromise with the CSU envisages building "decision and return" centers, in which asylum seekers will be forced to wait for their decisions and from which they will be deported if their applications are denied. If Merkel keeps this promise, ordinary Germans' contact with incoming refugees -- before they acclimatize themselves and acquire some language skills -- will be severely limited. Even now, new refugees are all but invisible as the increasingly efficient resettlement machine spreads them throughout Germany; if the "decision and return centers" come into being, conservative voters may not even remember in four years what the AfD could be talking about.

Of course, even the soft deal between Merkel and Seehofer is worrying to the Greens, whom the chancellor must draw into the ruling coalition to make it work. Party leader Simone Peter has condemned the humanitarian immigration ceiling as "totally arbitrary" and "purely ideological." But it's no deal-breaker; prominent Green legislator Katrin Goering-Eckardt has described it as a "formal compromise" in which "Mr. Seehofer gets his 200,000 and Mrs. Merkel makes sure no one is turned away at the border." The Greens will use the issue to bargain with the CDU, but it won't decide the success or failure of the coalition talks.

Merkel has disappointed everyone: Seehofer, who would have preferred a hard limit; the AfD, which she cannot please no matter what she does; the Greens, who don't want any immigration ceiling; the SPD, which is bitter about her transparent politicking. But so far so good: The chancellor is still on track to make a viable coalition deal with the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party, which believes professional immigration is preferable to the humanitarian kind.

This is just the beginning of an extended political master class we'll see from Merkel as she works on the new government and the detailed, binding policy agreements on which its authority will rest. Tax, foreign policy and environmental matters, on which the potential coalition partners differ, will require as much or more of her skill to sort. Everyone will grumble. But the Merkel Mercedes will keep gliding down the bumpy road.

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:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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