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Bavarian CSU leader upbeat on deal with Merkel over migration

BERLIN (Reuters) - Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Wednesday said his Bavarian conservatives were not seeking to break up Germany’s coalition government or oust Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he expressed optimism they could resolve their dispute over migration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to parliamentary group leader of the ruling CDU/CSU faction Volker Kauder during a fraction meeting in Berlin, Germany, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), told German television he continued to work constructively with Merkel and solutions could be found to satisfy the CSU, which is scrambling to win back voters lost to a far-right party before October regional elections.

Merkel and Seehofer are at odds over his plan to start turning back asylum seekers at the German border if they have registered in other European Union states, barring some “acceptable” deal with other European countries.

The dispute has plunged Merkel’s three-month-old “grand coalition” into crisis and weakened the conservative leader, who has served for nearly 13 years, with German officials now scrambling to reach deals with individual EU members.

Merkel’s coalition partners described the situation as very serious after four hours of crisis talks on Tuesday night, but Seehofer cautioned against writing off the coalition too soon.

“I am very optimistic that we will solve it,” he told an ARD programme late on Wednesday. “I can’t guarantee it, but the firm will is there.” He dodged repeated questions about what would happen if Merkel did not bring back a suitable deal from this week’s summit meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told broadcaster ZDF he thought the crisis could still be resolved. He said Seehofer had already softened his stance on another divisive issue, the migrant centers to be erected in Germany, and now accepted that each of Germany’s 16 states could set them up as they please.

German officials hope to win support from other EU states to better manage secondary migration, or the further travel of refugees already in the bloc’s territory.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told diplomats in the northern German city of Bremen that he was optimistic a solution could be found. “We must succeed if the future of Europe means anything to us,” he said.

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Sending back migrants is anathema to the usually flexible Merkel as it would undermine her open-door migrant policy and be a major setback to the EU’s Schengen open-border system. The CSU has given Merkel until the end of this week’s EU summit to agree on policies with EU partners to reduce the burden on Germany.

The CSU is pressuring Merkel to get a European deal, or at least bilateral deals with countries like Greece and Italy. The Financial Times on Wednesday reported that Greece was ready to cut such a deal.

Seehofer said he had to stick to his demands to maintain credibility with Bavarian voters and win back voters lost to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. But he said the CSU would remain a “party of the centre” and would not shift to the right of the AfD.

A new poll by the INSA institute showed the dispute was weakening support for the CSU in Bavaria, with its polls down one percentage point to 41 percent since April, and the AfD poised to become the second largest party in the state with 14 percent.

A separate poll conducted by Forsa showed that 54 percent of CSU voters in the wealthy West German state would switch and vote for Merkel’s CDU if it were on the ballot in Bavaria.

Thirty-nine percent of voters polled viewed the CSU itself as the biggest problem in the state, the poll showed.

Seehofer said Merkel would speak by telephone with the coalition partners after the EU meetings on Friday, and he would speak with her again, possibly several times, on Saturday.

The Bavarian conservatives will then meet on Sunday to review any EU progress and decide whether to defy Merkel and introduce the new controls.

If Seehofer goes ahead with his plans, many members of Merkel’s CDU say she would be forced to fire him. That could lead to a breakup of the alliance between the CDU and CSU and rob Merkel of a parliamentary majority.

Asked if he could soon leave government, Seehofer said, “There are situations in politics where one has a conviction, and then that conviction is more important than the office.”

If the coalition does break up, Merkel could lead a minority government or new elections could be called. Merkel, chancellor for nearly 13 years, could also lose support in her own CDU.

Merkel’s open-door migrant policy, which has led to the arrival of more than 1.6 million migrants in Germany since the start of 2015, is blamed for the rise of the AfD, now the country’s main opposition party.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Leslie Adler