June 27, 2018 / 2:30 PM / 5 months ago

Saving Chancellor Merkel: German leader seeks EU lifeline

BERLIN (Reuters) - Angela Merkel hopes this week’s European summit can save her from a migrant crisis that could cost her job. And while there is little love lost for the German chancellor in many capitals, they appear ready to help her out for reasons of self-interest.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo

Merkel’s Bavarian CSU allies have given her until the end of the EU summit to reduce the burden of immigration on Germany, which has taken in 1.6 million migrants since 2014. Otherwise, they will defy her and impose border controls, which could collapse the chancellor’s fledgling coalition.

If she fails to secure bilateral deals and show progress is being made to deal with the influx of migrants who have entered Europe, she will return to Berlin a lame duck chancellor, or possibly even out of a job.

There is little enthusiasm in Europe for Merkel, demonized as a Nazi in some states for her euro zone policies. But some members have indicated that it may be in their interests to back her, Reuters has learned from conversations with diplomats and officials in six European capitals.

There was important support from Paris, where an official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said French and German leaders should support one another “because there is no positive outcome for one if it is to the detriment of the other”.

With opposition from Poland and reservations in southern Europe, Merkel has dampened expectations by saying a comprehensive EU-wide deal is beyond reach this week.

But a realization seems to be dawning on some European leaders that a collapse of the Schengen open borders system - a consequence of the CSU’s plan to turn back migrants at the German border - would kill off the internal market which creates jobs, said one EU diplomat.

The numbers may also be in Merkel’s favor, with EU asylum applications down 25 percent in the first quarter of this year.

One EU diplomat said Merkel needs to create the impression that the EU is managing migration, an achievable target. The EU is likely to strengthen its external borders and agree to give more money to foreign countries to stop people heading to Europe in the first place.

ITALY CRUCIAL

The biggest bone of contention is how to share out asylum seekers who do make it. Here, Italy is a crucial player.

The arrival in Italy of 650,000 boat migrants in the last five years has fueled the rise of the far-right League, now in coalition with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Conte objects to rules that force the first EU country migrants enter to take responsibility for them and last week he clashed with Merkel. However, on Wednesday he hinted at a compromise, telling parliament Italy could help make the summit a watershed for Europe “to create the Europe we want”.

Other diplomats are less sanguine, with one from southern Europe saying the bloc is heading for failure and others pointing out the spirit of consensus and compromise has gone.

Merkel may be partly to blame for that. Despite her pro-European declarations, she has always put German interests first, to the annoyance of some EU capitals.

“We also don’t have any reason in this situation to support the government which is at least in part guilty of creating the problem at hand, the uncontrolled influx of migrants,” said a Polish government source.

Also, her European partners have changed. Around the table are more right-leaning leaders - in part a result, some commentators say, of her decisions on austerity and migrants.

At home, German media are describing this week as make or break for Merkel, with the CSU still insisting it will send people back at the border next week.

Facing a tough election in October, the CSU has taken the row to the brink, raising the possibility of breaking up its 70-year-old alliance with the Christian Democrats (CDU). This would cost Merkel her parliamentary majority.

This could mean a Merkel minority government, new elections, or even a new chancellor if she loses the backing of her CDU or simply decides she has had enough.

However, the CSU has softened its tone in the last day or two, sensing a preference for an EU solution to the migrant crisis.

“The tide is turning in her favor because the CSU is realizing that their heavy artillery is backfiring,” said Josef Joffe, publisher of Die Zeit weekly, who thinks Merkel will see off the attacks and cling to power.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels, Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Renee Maltezou in Athens, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Richard Lough in Paris, Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw; Editing by Giles Elgood

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