Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has cancelled his participation in an integration summit hosted by Angela Merkel amid increasing signs of major disagreements between them over the country’s asylum policy.
The absence follows his decision on Tuesday to drop the launch of an “immigration masterplan” after the German chancellor refused to back a crucial point of the plan that would allow migrants deemed to be trying to enter the country illegally to be turned back at the German border, arguing that it would breach European law. She insisted the masterplan was still being discussed in detail.
Merkel has attracted criticism particularly within her CDU party for failing to back Seehofer’s push for stricter immigration rules amid cross-party concern that German asylum policy is in disarray.
Instead of attending the summit, Seehofer said he was meeting the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who on Wednesday said hardline interior ministers from Italy, Austria and Germany had formed an “axis of the willing” to combat illegal immigration.
The claim marks a shot across the bow for Merkel, who is trying to pull together a deal for EU cooperation on placing asylum seekers.
Kurz has been pushing for more stringent immigration rules across the EU, but is not fully behind Seehofer’s plan to return people to the country in which they were first registered.
Merkel has steadfastly refused to sanction Seehofer’s plan, insisting on finding a European solution to illegal migration that would require enhanced controls along the external border of the EU.
Before her meeting with Kurz on Tuesday, Merkel said the issue was crucial and had the potential to seriously damage Europe if a remedy was not found soon.
Seehofer also made clear his anger that his speech at Wednesday’s summit was to be preceded by a speech by the Turkish-German author Ferda Ataman, who has accused the interior minister of adopting Nazi tendencies by choosing to rename his department the Heimat, or homeland, ministry. She has argued that the word “Heimat” in the context in which Seehofer has chosen to use it – namely to protect Germany – is a response to “rampant xenophobia” and plays to the “blood and soil” politics of Nazism. Seehofer has vehemently rejected the Nazi comparison.
The issue is expected to continue to reveal ever deeper rifts in the young coalition government. Seehofer, the leader of Merkel’s coalition allies, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), has been on a collision course with the chancellor ever since her decision to allow an influx of more than a million migrants in 2015 and 2016. Most of the newcomers arrived in Germany via Bavaria.
Seehofer’s “immigration masterplan” also involves so-called anchor centres, where immigrants’ details would be registered, and huge accommodation shelters where asylum seekers could stay while awaiting news on their applications.
The CSU is keen to demonstrate its toughness on the issue in the run-up to a state election in October in which it will seek to claw back support it has lost to the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland.
This month the CSU introduced a law in Bavaria requiring all public buildings, including schools and universities, to hang a crucifix in their entrances.