Europe breathed a sigh of relief late Monday night when, at just after 10 p.m., Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats and the heads of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democrats, declared they had reached a compromise on migration policy. The fight, in which the Bavarians demanded a significant tightening of Germany’s borders against refugees, had gone on for weeks and threatened, at the end, to take down the government.
Had Ms. Merkel fallen, even temporarily, the European Union would have lost one of its last stalwart advocates — at a time when the forces of illiberalism are growing even stronger.
But is the crisis really over? Can Germany and Europe finally breathe again? Hardly. The damage is here to stay.
The superficial explanation for the crisis is that the C.S.U., facing state elections in October, wanted to shore up its conservative base against the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials A.f.D. But this crisis is about much more than that. In the past weeks, Germany has seen an unprecedented and possibly irreparable deterioration in its political culture.
Simply put, the C.S.U. didn’t just borrow an issue from the far right; by demonizing immigrants and harping on a nonexistent refugee “crisis” — in fact, refugee arrivals are down significantly — it adopted a politics of fear and panic, for which it positioned itself as the savior. This is a new and dangerous turn in Germany’s once rational and consensus-driven political climate.
The C.S.U. then used the fear it generated to force Ms. Merkel to accept an uncomfortable compromise — holding camps along the border for newly arrived refugees. The alternative was a collapse of the government, new elections and most likely an improved standing for the A.f.D. Whatever the outcome, it would have meant many more months without reliable German leadership for Europe and a stalled opportunity to build a stronger Franco-German dynamic, arguably the only thing holding the European Union together.
Nor was the C.S.U.’s demand a small one, though on paper, the dispute seems remarkably narrow. It involved the third subpoint to Item 27 in a policy paper signed by the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer, of the C.S.U. But that subpoint contained multitudes: It dealt with so-called secondary migration within the European Union.
According to the Dublin Convention, which regulates which country is responsible for examining an asylum seeker’s plea for protection, the first country a migrant enters is in charge. In most actual cases, this is one of the southern European states bordering the Mediterranean. However, many migrants don’t stay in those countries but move on to the north of Europe. Germany has the right to send “secondary migrants” back. But in many cases, the legal protections of the Dublin regulation and exemptions, for example for minors, require further examination of each individual case, something that legal scholars argue cannot be done at the border. Also, the countries of first entry often decline to take the migrants back.
Hence the dispute. Mr. Seehofer demanded that Germany send such secondary migrants back anyway, which would have angered countries on Europe’s southern periphery and most likely brought the entire fragile edifice crashing down, and with it the principle of free movement within the European Union. Ms. Merkel insisted that a European solution could be found and did just that a few weeks ago, in a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Meseberg palace outside Berlin. But Mr. Seehofer was not satisfied.
It’s a complex, confusing issue, even for Germans, in part because everyone agrees that the Dublin process is a mess, and the union’s failure to fix it is a sore point even for its defenders.
What is more confounding, though, is the fact that the migration crisis is over in Germany. In 2015 and 2016, the German administration was overwhelmed by the influx on every level. Gyms and airport hangars became housing facilities. Soldiers were trained to administer in hearings for pleas for asylum, because the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees could not cope. That’s no longer the case.
This is not to say that the country is not still grappling with the consequences. Europe still lacks a functioning common asylum system. But contrary to what the C.S.U. and A.f.D. assert, the German state is not failing, and order is returning.
For all its shortcomings, Europe has actually managed the crisis quite well, in practice. Its external borders are stronger, and better policed and managed. Cooperation with Libya’s border-patrol militias, however ethically suspect, has brought down the numbers crossing from that country to Italy. So has the agreement with Turkey to host migrants in return for financial aid. In 2015, more than 450,000 pleas for asylum were filed; in 2016, about 745,000. So far this year, there have been only 68,000.
According to figures by the German Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, only about a quarter of those applying for asylum in Germany in 2018 are already registered in another European country. This means that the C.S.U. risked blowing up the government to push through a regulation that applies to about 100 individuals a day, scattered over all of Germany’s points of entry.
In a sane and sound political system, threats to blow up governments and force new elections are reserved for the truly momentous disputes; small things are resolved through compromise. That’s how Germany worked for decades.
This logic no longer applies. It has been replaced by the logic of escalation. The sentiment of crisis is perpetuated rhetorically in an attempt to whip up public opinion to then point to public opinion as a justification for radical solutions. And not just by the fringes, but by mainstream politicians. Populism needs an outer threat to function. It requires a sense of urgency to justify its policies. Populism can’t let crisis go. It is both its fuel and its outcome.
For the C.S.U., this strategy proved to be both a great failure and a great success. Though Mr. Seehofer and his faction keep claiming to speak for a majority, citizens both in Bavaria and elsewhere have grown increasingly annoyed with their caprices. The C.S.U. has dropped in the polls, in Bavaria and nationwide.
On the political level, however, the strategy worked. Ms. Merkel was forced to react and to compromise much further than she was once willing to. Instead of working on a proactive and more sustainable European solution along the lines of the Franco-German agreements adopted recently at Meseberg, she had to resort to whatever she could get in the short term, paving a completely different path for European migration policy.
The result is not a true “European” fix, as the chancellor claims, but a jury-rigged workaround: more external border controls for Germany, and bilateral agreements between Germany and some countries of first entry to take back secondary migrants. In Germany, the Conservative Union agreed to open “transition centers” at the border, and those camps will not count as German soil.
On Thursday the Social Democrats, who govern alongside Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Mr. Seehofer’s C.S.U., are meeting to decide whether to accept the deal or repeat the threat of leaving the government. Chances are they will go along, because they fear new elections even more than Ms. Merkel. But they also face strong opposition to the deal from their left wing — and in general, most Germans are uncomfortable with the plan. So whatever deal is sealed this week, the political crisis over refugees is not over.
Whatever respite Germany may have gained this week is offset, and then some, by the arrival of a new and frightening political dynamic. Mr. Seehofer succeeded by going nuclear; chances are, he won’t be the last. The politics of fear and menace may be here to stay, undermining the foundations of democracy. In sound democracies, policies are the results of compromise between parties representing a majority of the voters. Through the politics of artificial crisis, minorities take the system hostage. They create policies redeeming fictional problems for fictional majorities.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.