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15 June 2018

Will an immigration battle spell disaster for Angela Merkel’s fourth term?

For the EU, the row in Germany is a reminder of the ability of the migrant crisis to cause political crisis across the bloc. 

By Stephen Bush

Does the fourth term always end in tears? The fourth term ended badly for Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, and now it seems Angela Merkel may be going the same way.

The chancellor is at odds with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, over immigration policy. Seehofer wants to turn away at Germany’s borders anybody who has already applied for asylum in other European nations, while Merkel wants a Europe-wide solution. As it stands, her party, the CDU, is behind her – but largely only because they don’t want to be pushed around by their sister party, the Bavarian CSU.

But Seehofer can act unilaterally as interior minister if he so chooses and that would force Merkel into a corner. Sacking him could trigger a full-blown CDU-CSU civil war and another election. Wolfgang Schauble, who has credibility on both sides, having criticised Merkel’s immigration policies while otherwise being impeccably loyal, has been drafted into to mediate.

What does it mean? For the European Union it is a reminder – if it were needed after events in Italy – of the ability of the migrant crisis to cause political crisis across the bloc. It represents a threat to Emmanuel Macron’s reform proposals, as an early election could yet produce a government that includes the FDP, who are largely hostile to his plans.

As far as the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU is concerned, it’s less of a game changer. The ears of British Remainers often prick up at talk of European-wide reform to immigration, believing that it might settle the United Kingdom’s problem of free movement. But the issue is lost in translation: when British politicians talk about European immigration reforms, they are talking about the right of people from central and eastern Europe to move from one member state to another.

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When politicians in the rest of Europe talk about immigration reform, they are talking about refugees and people coming from outside the continent.

But it does mean, whether you are Theresa May or Emmanuel Macron, that anyone betting the farm that a strong German chancellor is going to ride to the rescue of their European agenda is in for a very long wait.