Merkel's Bavarian allies put foot down over border bans

MUNICH/BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies told the party leadership on Sunday he saw no alternative to turning some migrants back at the German border, a party source said, a position that could escalate his conflict with the chancellor.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a news conference following the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The party is due to decide whether the deals on migration Merkel brought home from a Brussels summit this week are enough to satisfy the restive Christian Social Union (CSU), who are determined to secure a tougher immigration policy.

Nine months after elections that saw her lose votes to the far right, a weakened Merkel was forced to turn to European Union neighbors to help resolve a conflict with her allies which could bring down her three-month-old coalition.

But the CSU’s leader, interior minister Horst Seehofer, told party colleagues that a discussion he had had with Merkel late on Saturday evening had been fruitless, according to a party source, and was adamant that there was no alternative to exclusions at the border, opposed by Merkel.

There were fresh signs on Sunday that the two leaders, entrenched in their positions, may fail to resolve their differences. Seehofer said the matter was also affecting the “credibility” of his role as party leader and is planning to give a statement to CSU leaders, party sources said.

The CSU party, facing a stiff challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in October’s regional election, is determined to seal off its right flank.

Earlier this week, EU leaders hammered out a deal to share out refugees on a voluntary basis and create “controlled centers” inside the European Union to process asylum requests.

Merkel said in an interview with ZDF television that the formal agreements and verbal commitments she had secured from her EU partners would have the migration-stemming effect the CSU wanted to achieve, but in a more European-minded fashion.

She reiterated her determination to act in way that was “not unilateral and that are not to the detriment of third parties” - highlighting her continued opposition to proposals by Seehofer to turn back refugees at the border.

“The sum of all we’ve agreed is equivalent to what the CSU wants - that’s my personal view, but the CSU must decide for themselves,” she said.

“It is also sustainable and in accordance with the European ideal. Europe is slow, and we aren’t yet where we want to be... In my view Europe will be held together, otherwise free movement could have been in danger,” she added.

A document circulated by Merkel to coalition allies on Friday night outlined repatriation agreements with 16 countries and proposed reception centers in Germany where migrants would undergo an accelerated asylum procedure — measures that represent a significant hardening of her 2015 open-door asylum policy.

FILE PHOTO: Migrant women and a child, part of a group intercepted aboard a dinghy off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, are seen after arriving on a rescue boat at the port of Motril, Spain June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca/File Photo


But the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long sought to position himself as Merkel’s nemesis in the immigration debate polarizing the continent, later said they had signed no bilateral agreements on repatriation.

The CSU’s leadership were tight-lipped as they arrived at their party’s Munich headquarters to discuss Merkel’s deals. But earlier, Bavaria’s premier Markus Soeder, mindful of the October regional elections, was positive.

“It goes absolutely in the right direction,” he said, but added he would keep up the pressure to obtain more clarity on the details.

While most analysts expect Merkel to survive the clash with the CSU, it is unlikely to be the last occasion on which the sister party seeks to distance itself from a chancellor it sees as too centrist for its own supporters.

The document circulated by Merkel to her coalition partners after the summit said 14 countries had agreed “on a political level” to take back some migrants who had passed through other EU countries on their way to Germany.

“I understand that this is a dramatic attempt to save her own position, but absolutely there is no agreement” Jacek Sasin, a senior Polish government official said, on public television on Sunday.

In the interview, Merkel said she regretted any misunderstandings, but that she had been given “political commitments”, and had not said any deals had been signed.

Reporting by Andreas Cremer, Victoria Bryan and Tom Koerkemeier in Berlin and Agnieszka Barteczko in WarsawEditing by Robin Pomeroy and Raissa Kasolowsky

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