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Immigration Crisis May End German Chancellor's Political Career


In Germany, the political crisis over migration escalated overnight. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's interior minister offered to resign from her cabinet. He says he is not going to back down on a demand that she adopt his hard line on migrants who come to Germany seeking asylum. Now, if he quits, his Bavarian-only party may follow suit, and that would break up Merkel's conservative faction. This is something that has not happened in 42 years, and it would likely end her political career. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Berlin following all of this.

Hi, Soraya.


KING: All right. So tell us about this interior minister and why he is willing to bring the German government down over migration at a time when the number of migrants coming to Germany is way down.

NELSON: Well, his name is Horst Seehofer. He's the leader of the Christian Social Union since 2008, and this is the party that's in Bavaria. It's basically the conservative faction that's only in Bavaria and is part of the larger conservative faction that Angela Merkel heads. I mean, she heads the CDU, or the Christian Democrats. And so Seehofer has never been a fan of Merkel, and he's been particularly critical of her refugee policy. He blames her for what happened during national elections last fall where their faction lost a lot of power. He's also facing - and I should say his party is facing - a threat by the far-right Alternative for Germany in Bavaria. And he feels like if he doesn't stick to his word about addressing migration aggressively by closing the borders that this is going to come back to haunt him. So he's really ready, it seems, to defy Merkel in a way that could bring down the government.

KING: Well, Seehofer had said that he would give Merkel a chance to go to Brussels last week and to meet with the European Union and bring back a deal on asylum-seekers before taking any drastic steps like closing the borders. She then did that. We had you on talking about it. Why wasn't that enough?

NELSON: Well, he's very concerned about this being more about intentions rather than actions since the EU does - I mean, there are differences within the EU about how to deal with migration. So he's like, OK, this isn't really going to solve anything because there's no actions. Also, the extra deals that she managed to get, for example, with Spain and Greece to take back some asylum-seekers who show up in Germany but actually belong there in exchange for family reunification being sped up, where you would bring relatives who are in Spain and Greece to Germany, he just feels that that's just going to end up creating more migration towards Germany. But, then again, many in her governing coalition say this isn't about migration at all. It's a power play, and Seehofer just wants Merkel gone.

KING: All right. So he's offered to resign. Has Merkel responded?

NELSON: She has not, nor has her party. But his party, the CSU, balked and apparently persuaded him not to quit the cabinet or his post as head of their party, at least for now. Seehofer spoke briefly to reporters as he left party headquarters in Munich early this morning...


HORST SEEHOFER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: ...And he said his decision to meet with Merkel and the CDU is a final attempt to try and find common ground. But again, many German politicians and pundits here expect he's just going to formally resign later today.

KING: And, just briefly, what happens if he does resign?

NELSON: Well, the best-case scenario - he leaves and the party or his party stays in the government and Merkel continues governing, albeit with a weakened coalition. The worst-case scenario is that the governing coalition dissolves, and she ends up being kicked out, and there are new elections. But nobody wants that because it would benefit the far-right party.

KING: A lot at stake. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Thanks, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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