Interview Conducted by Ralf Neukirch and René Pfister
Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer has been extremely critical of Chancellor Merkel’s approach to the refugee crisis. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about limiting migration, his relationship with Merkel and why he is upset with the German media.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Governor, how would you summarize the effectiveness of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies thus far?
Seehofer: I can only summarize in part since Turkey was unable to participate in the February EU summit in Brussels due to the attack in Ankara. That is why the Turkish government will now be consulted in early March as to whether it is prepared to close its borders to illegal migration. The other part of the solution, though, is not working thus far — namely the registering of refugees at the European Union’s external borders and distributing them throughout Europe.
SPIEGEL: And you don’t believe that part of the plan will ever work.
Seehofer: I didn’t say that. At the beginning of November, I agreed with Angela Merkel and (Vice Chancellor) Sigmar Gabriel (of the center-left Social Democratic Party) that we will seek a European solution to the refugee crisis. That is still possible. But the more we realize that the European solution is not making progress, the more we have to depend on national measures. In practice, that means: controlling our national borders and rejecting refugees. I emphatically welcome Austria’s decision to introduce daily quotas for refugees. I have no idea why the German federal government has criticized the plan.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it will mean that more people will apply for asylum in Germany?
Seehofer: But we can’t demand that other countries solve our problems! The Swedes have taken action, the Danes have taken action, the Belgians have taken action. It’s only here that things are completely different. This year alone, 110,000 refugees have already arrived in Bavaria, despite winter and despite several efforts to slow them on the Balkan route. If it continues like this, we will reach the ceiling I proposed, of 200,000 per year, in March and there is a danger that by the end of the year we will once again have a million refugees in the country. I am just soberly describing reality. You can run away from reality for a time because it doesn’t fit into your political world view. But then the people will run away from us.
SPIEGEL: You are the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The two of you are nominal allies. What does your Plan B look like?
Seehofer: Significant portions of refugee and asylum law are not being enforced. The Schengen Agreement, the Dublin Regulation, the asylum law and the asylum article in the German constitution: none of them are being applied anymore, despite the fact that no parliament has granted its approval (to this change). There are two fundamental concepts that we have to enforce again. First: freedom of movement in the Schengen area can only exist if the external borders are protected. Second: If the protection of external borders breaks down, then refugees must apply for asylum in the European country where they first enter the union.
SPIEGEL: You want to seal Germany off from the crisis, in other words.
Seehofer: No. Because it is never broadcast or written about, I would like to present the nuances of our position. Yes, the EU made mistakes by leaving countries like Italy and Greece to their own devices despite the fact that most refugees first enter Europe there. And yes, Germany will have to accept many refugees in the future too; we have to establish a quota for that. I have identified the number of 200,000 per year, which correlates to our population share and economic strength in the EU. But once this number has been reached, we have to reject people at the border.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that refugees would be deterred if Germany were to introduce a quota?
Seehofer: I predict that if Germany makes it clear that there are limits to the number of people it can accept, then migration will fall. At the moment, many still feel they have been invited. That is the reality.
SPIEGEL: Your plan, then, calls for allowing 200,000 people through, but when the 200,001st refugee shows up, the German border official will say: “We’re sorry, but that’s it.”
Seehofer: Let me answer with a question that the German media unfortunately doesn’t ask, perhaps because they don’t have the courage to do so. A quota is to be agreed upon with Turkey. Has anyone ever asked the question how high this quota is supposed to be? How they are supposed to be distributed in Europe and what to tell Syrian refugees in Turkey who don’t get a spot in the quota? I am constantly asked questions that others never have to face.
SPIEGEL: The idea of taking a predetermined number of refugees from Turkey is Merkel’s plan, but we are speaking with you at the moment.
Seehofer: Quotas are nothing other than ceilings. Nobody can say that ceilings won’t work, but quotas will.
SPIEGEL: That’s what Merkel says.
Seehofer: We’ll see what it looks like when it becomes more concrete.
SPIEGEL: Why are you so irritable?
Seehofer: I find it absurd that I am constantly having to justify myself for standing up for law and order.
SPIEGEL: We are not trying to put you on trial here. We would just like to know how your plan is supposed to work.
Seehofer: And afterwards you will ask me why I travel to Putin or speak with Orbán.
SPIEGEL: We’ll get to that.
Seehofer: See! I am constantly being attacked in the media. Among the general public, I have very high approval ratings for my position, even phenomenal ratings in Bavaria, whereas the approval ratings for the SPD are at rock-bottom.
SPIEGEL: But right now we are asking you about your party’s plan to close the borders. Merkel says this cannot be done because it would create a backup along the entire Balkan Route that …
Seehofer: … you’ve already given expression to the first error in logic.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Seehofer: Because sending the signal that we have limitations will have an effect. If a refugee says to a police officer on New Year’s Eve in Cologne: “You can’t do anything to me because the chancellor invited me,” it spreads incredibly quickly on the social networks. It will spread just as quickly if Germany says: So, that’s it, we cannot take in more than 15,000 people per month. What is so difficult about that?
SPIEGEL: It will hardly be possible to completely control the more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of Germany’s border.
Seehofer: That is also one of those phony debates. Of course you can never totally prevent a few refugees from making it across the border. But the vast majority of countries on earth try to secure their borders and are successful in doing so. We won’t be able to avoid doing the same. The issue of immigration will occupy us for the next 15 years. The global population is exploding in the developing countries and they will be the source of additional migration. We need an answer to that issue that is both systematic and rules based. I view it as self-evident that we must also fight the causes of flight to a greater degree than we are now.
SPIEGEL: But that spells an end to the European system of open borders.
Seehofer: No. That means: Those who say they want to limit immigration at the EU’s external borders must deliver. We have to finally achieve that goal. Otherwise, only national measures are left.
SPIEGEL: It is, however, a weighty argument when Bavarian business leaders say: We don’t want border controls because it inhibits trade.
Seehofer: I know.
SPIEGEL: Do you not understand that point of view?
Seehofer: Of course I do. But if we allow another million refugees to come this year, we will reach the limits of our capacities. How does border-free travel without any kind of controls help me if the state implodes because it is unable to cope with the task it has been presented? For business, that is much more serious.
SPIEGEL: In the past, you have often praised Merkel’s acumen. If the problems are so pressing, why is she not listening to you?
Seehofer: Not all questions must be answered.
SPIEGEL: But you have surely thought about it. After all, Merkel’s political career is at stake.
Seehofer: At the moment, several political careers are at stake.
SPIEGEL: You have requested a meeting of party leaders in Germany prior to the next EU summit. Why?
Seehofer: I want to know exactly what agreements have already been reached at the European level and which ones will continue to be pursued.
SPIEGEL: Merkel allegedly isn’t interested in meeting with you at the moment.
Seehofer: That would be a first. Seriously: We all have extremely full schedules at the moment. But we will nevertheless find a time to meet.
SPIEGEL: How might a meeting right now between Merkel and Seehofer look?
Seehofer: Normal. We speak honestly with each other. Angela Merkel has her appraisal of international options. She cannot, of course, guarantee that negotiations with Turkey will be successful. But she is fighting for it. And I wish her success.
SPIEGEL: The recent months of conflict haven’t changed your relationship?
Seehofer: No. We work well together.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that Merkel would say the same?
Seehofer: That is not a question I lose sleep over.
SPIEGEL: If Merkel runs for reelection, will your party support her if she stays true to her refugee policies?
Seehofer: Next question.
SPIEGEL: Is there an alternative to Merkel?
Seehofer: I don’t see one.
SPIEGEL: Last October, you threatened to haul the German federal government before the Constitutional Court on account of Merkel’s refugee policies. In retrospect, was that a good idea?
Seehofer: Yes. The idea, after all, came from me. But of course our priority is a political solution.
SPIEGEL: Even former Constitutional Court judge Udo Di Fabio, who wrote an expert opinion for the Bavarian state government, says that Berlin has a degree of discretion on border policy that is only “narrowly litigable.”
Seehofer: It is the federal government’s obligation to protect the borders. It is allowed to transfer this obligation to Europe. But when protection of the external borders isn’t working, then it must take place on the national level.
SPIEGEL: Why haven’t you submitted your complaint to the court yet?
Seehofer: Because political solutions have priority. Only if these efforts are unsuccessful will the complaint be filed.
SPIEGEL: What will you do when the 200,000 ceiling is reached in March?
Seehofer: There are several possibilities. But it makes no sense for me to share them with you, otherwise we will be accused of threats, ultimatums, etc. and Berlin pundits will feel called upon to attack us Bavarians.
SPIEGEL: Many in your party believe that Merkel wants to use her policies to change the country. Do you believe that too?
Seehofer: The country has already changed. But I don’t believe that this is what Angela Merkel intended.
SPIEGEL: What changes do you mean?
Seehofer: The country is divided. People are unsettled and polarization has increased. Europe is stressed and disunited. Every politician should be alarmed. I am, at least. What is happening in Saxony is unacceptable, there is no question. But we also have to ask ourselves if political leaders can do something so that the radicalization begins to wane again.
SPIEGEL: Merkel has pushed the CDU to the left to a greater degree than any of her predecessors. Has this helped to make the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) stronger?
Seehofer: That is a very superficial analysis. The specter of the AfD will disappear when the public believes the issue of immigration is under control. I recently read a poll showing that 19 percent of Germans would vote for the CSU if it could run nationally. It showed the CDU getting 23 percent.
SPIEGEL: Is that an argument for expanding the CSU to the national level?
Seehofer: I do not want to do that, not even as a last resort.
SPIEGEL: At the moment, AfD’s growing strength is actually helping your CSU and Merkel’s CDU because it makes left-leaning majorities in state parliaments close to impossible.
Seehofer: That’s a dangerous fallacy. Just look at France, where the Front National is stronger than ever before. Or at Austria, where polls show the FPÖ (eds. note: the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria) ahead of the ÖVP (the Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party) and SPÖ (the Social Democratic Party of Austria) in regional polls. That is why every CSU chairman since Franz Josef Strauss has fought so decisively against the creation of a democratically legitimate party to the right of the CDU and CSU.
SPIEGEL: Is Merkel the first head of the CDU not to have followed this maxim?
Seehofer: Angela Merkel is, like me, of the opinion that multicultural and parallel societies in no way contribute to solving the issue of integration. That can be found in a paper written by the party chairs of the CDU and the CSU on Nov. 1, 2015. That also means that the political and societal identity of our country shall be preserved. I carry the paper with me each day like a marriage contract.
SPIEGEL: Let’s shift the conversation to another issue: the foreign policy of the state of Bavaria. You paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin three weeks ago and praised his noble attitude regarding the German refugee issue. Can you please tell us how Putin earned this compliment?
Seehofer: During my visit in Moscow, Putin said: I am not meddling in your discussion about the German refugee policies. I then told journalists that I found it noble that he did not comment on the chancellor’s policies in her absence.
SPIEGEL: Why did Putin receive you?
Seehofer: What I can tell you is why I traveled there. For one thing, there are important Bavarian firms that are active in Russia. For another, the issue of the European sanctions against Russia obviously plays a role because they also have repercussions for our state.
SPIEGEL: In contrast to Ms. Merkel, you want to lift the sanctions. Doesn’t it bother you that Putin uses them to drive a wedge in the German government?
Seehofer: Why are you criticizing the fact that one is talking to statesmen about solutions to problems? Angela Merkel speaks with Putin, too. Look, when I speak to sensible, educated people about my thoughts and the talks with Putin, I am met with enthusiastic approval. This happened most recently in February before the Economic Council of the CDU in Baden-Württemberg.
SPIEGEL: It’s truly remarkable that German industry is supportive of the idea of sanctions being lifted.
Seehofer: The German people see it the same way. Even when I just say that you can’t have an influence on anything unless you talk to each other, they applaud. Of course, it is also important that the conditions for the lifting of the sanctions are fulfilled.
SPIEGEL: No one has a problem with you speaking to Putin. Angela Merkel does that as well. But you are engaging in a shadow foreign policy that counteracts the government’s position.
Seehofer: That is simply incorrect. I spoke with Angela Merkel prior to the trip and also with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I am now traveling (Eds. note: on March 4) to Hungary to meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Then I will travel to Kiev to visit with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and then again to Russian with a large business delegation. We are strengthening our Eastern Europe strategy. That is very important and necessary right now. The fact that I am rooted firmly in the Western alliance should not be called into question.
SPIEGEL: Why are you once again meeting with Orbán? He already visited you this fall in Bavaria.
Seehofer: I am not playing the democracy pedant, like you seem to enjoy doing.
SPIEGEL: You claimed recently there is a rule of injustice in Germany and at the same time you are paying court to someone who has stripped his constitutional court of power and introduced curbs on the freedom of speech. We think there is need for explanation.
Seehofer: Why are you spreading an incorrect story that was created by a journalist in Bavaria? I never said that Ms. Merkel is leading an unjust regime. I never drew any parallels to East Germany. I did not say anything other than what I am saying in this interview now, namely that established law is no longer being applied in the refugee crisis.
SPIEGEL: But there is a difference when a person says that the law is being partially broken and when they say that there is a “rule of injustice.”
Seehofer: I have nothing more to say about that.
SPIEGEL: Why have you recently taken to blaming the media when something goes wrong?
Seehofer: Because the media have a problem, especially the public broadcasters. To exaggerate it a bit: If they didn’t do live broadcasts, they wouldn’t have much by way of programming that represents real life. Public broadcaster ZDF was forced to express its regret over its coverage of Cologne (Eds. note: He is referring to the mass sexual assaults and thefts perpetrated by migrants in the city on New Year’s Eve). And ARD explained that, yes, it is true that we have shown many women and children refugees, but not a comparable number of men, of whom there are many more coming to Germany. Some of the coverage had very little to do with reality.
SPIEGEL: Our media landscape is a very pluralistic one. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for example, one of the country’s most important newspapers, has reported very critically about Ms. Merkel’s policies from the very beginning.
Seehofer: What does that change?
SPIEGEL: It means that it is nonsense to talk about a uniform media landscape in Germany. Media freedom and media diversity in Germany does not mean that a person will find his views of things reflected in every single media.
Seehofer: In my view, the personal conviction of the writer too often serves as the measure for the coverage. Last week’s story in SPIEGEL about me also affirmed my opinion.
SPIEGEL: Among other things reported in the story was that you are not ruling out the possibility of running again to become party chairman of the CSU and governor of Bavaria. Was that incorrect?
Seehofer: That is not an issue right now.
SPIEGEL: Your finance minister in Bavaria, Markus Söder, would actually like to become your successor as head of the party before the next national election in 2017.
Seehofer: There is nothing new to talk about there either.
SPIEGEL: Do you want to prevent Söder from becoming your successor?
Seehofer: I want for us to go into the election with the person who stands the best chance.
SPIEGEL: As a last resort, will you have to run again?
Seehofer: We will stick with the plan that I consider to be better. That is why we do not need to be discussing any second-best solutions right now.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Seehofer, we thank you for this interview.