Opinion: An ‘upper limit’ on refugees — by any other name


A sibling feud had been taking place between sister party politicians Angela Merkel (CDU) and Horst Seehofer (CSU). But with a little linguistic finesse, both party leaders have scored a win, writes Volker Wagener.

Seehofer and Merkel on stage at a press conference (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

How do you feed a wolf without touching the sheep? Easy: With politics. After enduring a 10-point loss — near destruction by party standards  — Bavaria’s wolf, the Christian Social Union (CSU) chief Horst Seehofer, had his prey in sight: “upper limit.” The term, heard uttered in hushed tones, refers to an annual cap on refugees seeking asylum in Germany, is now a done deal for the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Ok, maybe they don’t call it that anymore. But more on that later.

Read more: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU discusses migration policies with Bavarian CSU

CSU doesn’t want anyone further to the right

Political readjustment is standard procedure after an election. The CSU may have lost big time, but it is still in a position to make demands. Not only because the CDU’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, badly needs her Bavarian sister party’s support to govern, but also because an old CSU expression is no longer valid: The only thing further right than the CSU should be the wall. Franz Josef Strauss, the party’s iconic post-WWII politician, set this slogan in stone. But the election on September 24 saw the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) move the wall and plant itself to the political right of the CSU. Seehofer wants, and needs, to correct this.

Read more: Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies CSU threaten rightward shift

Politics can be pragmatic, when the involved politicians feel the noose tightening around their necks. The CDU and the CSU’s agreement in Berlin to go beyond paying lip service to the controversial idea of a “refugee cap” and actually put it on the record is one such perfect example.

People wait in line in front of the Migration ministry in Germany (picture-alliance/dpa/J.Stratenschulte)

Constitutionality of a limit

A refugee limit is, in principle, unconstitutional. Merkel repeated her mantra — the right to asylum knows no limit! — as if it were a shining commandment.  Obviously, some tweaking of terms was in order. Turns out, that mantra does not apply exclusively to asylum seekers. What before was known as a coldhearted “upper limit” will now throw together migrants, refugees and qualified immigration.

Whatever the name, Seehofer can live with it. For him, it’s the substance of the agreement that matters. The result, he says, will be an “instruction manual” for future refugee policy. The “upper limit” that is called anything but: It sounds less extreme and somehow friendlier, and it is definitely vaguer, leaving wiggle room for later negotiations. After all, coalition talks with the Free Democrats (FDP) and The Greens have not even begun yet.

Two things are certain: The CSU-CDU partnership can again present itself as the union their party names suggest. Simultaneously, the CSU can set straight to work bringing everything that is democratically legitimate” into its fold.  Bavaria will hold state elections next year, and the CSU wants to make up for its dismal national election result of 38 percent and take back “lost voters” from the newcomer AfD.

DW's Volker Wagener

An eye on state elections

Merkel has a hard pill to swallow as she pulls together the only workable government, the so-called Jamaica coalition made of the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, along with the CDU-CSU. But by pacifying her politically bruised partner Seehofer through linguistic slight of hand, the chancellor has taken a step towards de-escalation before the Greens and FDP show up to the table with their list of demands.

So how did Merkel stick to her word and Seehofer score a win? Merkel was able to avoid the term “upper limit” by accepting a fixed number: No more than 200,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants per year. And that was just what Seehofer needed. With next year’s election on the horizon, he can proclaim to his party that he won on the issue of a refugee limit. And Merkel can still claim that the right to asylum knows no limit.


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