Last week was a bad one for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the World Cup in Russia, defending champions Germany were soundly defeated by South Korea and sent home in disgrace, while the government seemed on the verge of collapse as a deadline loomed for her to reach a workable deal on migration with her EU colleagues.
But this week isn’t going much better. Despite bashing out a deal – non-binding and vague, but a deal nonetheless – with the EU’s leaders on migration, and a second one with her own rebellious Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, heading off his threatened resignation and a possible coalition implosion, Merkel is still in fire-fighting mode.
In her diary Thursday were two key meetings: one with the right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – whose country is headed down an illiberal, anti-EU path – and a second with UK Prime Minister Theresa May – whose country’s impending departure from the bloc is causing no end of headaches.
Seehofer was also in Vienna Thursday, attempting to sell his migration deal with Merkel to Austria’s disgruntled chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.
Merkel has long insisted that European problems can only be fixed with European solutions – but the list of issues on her agenda Thursday reveal the extent to which that position is under attack.
Berlin, 12 p.m local: Merkel meets Orban
Last week, Merkel described migration as a “make or break” issue for Europe. Orban has taken aggressive, unilateral action to reduce migration into Hungary and repeatedly resisted EU-wide efforts.
The last time Orban came to Germany – in January this year – he was invited by Seehofer in his role as head of the CSU, the more conservative sister party of Merkel’s CDU.
While in Germany, he gave a speech championing border defense, lauding himself as “the captain of Bavaria’s border fortress” and defending his decision to build a fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia in 2015 to keep migrants and refugees out.
His decision in 2015 to take unilateral action put him in conflict with Merkel, who has pushed relentlessly for Europe-wide agreements on migration. And Orban – joined by leaders in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, and increasingly in Austria and Italy – has repeatedly resisted bloc-wide efforts to manage new arrivals.
Just two weeks ago, he refused to attend a mini-summit on migration, accusing some countries (Germany being implicated) of triggering a “pan-European frenzy” on migration.
Merkel is now looking to strike a deal with Orban to limit the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany – a tricky task given several years of chilly relations.
While Orban did signal his willingness to eventually reach an agreement with Merkel in an interview with German tabloid BILD Tuesday, as reported by Reuters, it was clear when the two leaders emerged after the meeting that the gulf between them on the issue of migration remained.
As Merkel argued that the EU cannot become fortress Europe – “we cannot cut ourselves off from humanity” – Orban insisted that Europe must fence itself off and eradicate pull factors.
“I and the chancellor see the world in very different ways,” said Orban, stating the obvious.
And migration is not the only issue where Merkel needs Orban on-side – she will also be seeking assurances from the Hungarian leader ahead of the NATO summit next week where Europe must show a united front in the face of Trump’s demands.
As he is someone whose actions frequently threaten that unity, Merkel’s battle will be an uphill one.
Vienna, 1 p.m. local: Seehofer meets Kurz
Kurz is not happy with a deal struck between Merkel and Seehofer on Monday that would see some asylum seekers already registered elsewhere in the EU sent back across Germany’s southern border to Austria.
The Austrian leadership seemed surprised by their role in the agreement, responding with a statement Tuesday morning requesting further clarification and insisting that Austria would “take measures” to protect its southern borders if necessary.
That’s exactly the kind of unilateral action Merkel dislikes – and the threat will concern her.
Seehofer, who was originally pushing for all asylum seekers registered elsewhere to be pushed back at the border, was in Vienna Thursday to repair the damage.
In his previous role as state premier in Bavaria, Seehofer worked closely with the Austrian government and has a good relationship with Kurz, whose form of conservatism (more to the right than Merkel’s) and political priorities – reducing migration and speeding up deportations – align neatly with Seehofer’s.
He perhaps has the best chance of keeping Austria on board with both the specific migration deal and the European project more broadly. That’s a vital task given that Austria has just taken over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU and has signaled an intention to work more closely with the rebellious Visegrad countries.
Berlin, 2 p.m. local: Merkel meets May
Ironically, Britain’s departure from the EU (dubbed “Brexit”) is one of the least divisive issues among the remaining member states. At an EU summit last week, Brexit-related issues on the agenda were resolved far more speedily than the migration talks, which continued through the night.
But Brexit remains one of the most potent reminders of dissatisfaction among the bloc’s citizens – and while the threat of other countries following suit has subsided, it hasn’t entirely disappeared.
In her meeting with May, Merkel will have to balance the needs of a post-Brexit Europe with a desire for strong UK-German relations, while keeping the UK within the European fold ahead of the NATO summit.
The hospitalization of a British couple at the weekend may also be on the agenda. They are being treated for exposure to Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent that almost killed a former Russian spy and his daughter in March, re-igniting debate regarding the threat posed by Russia in Europe.
In fact, Germany’s early departure from the World Cup may hold a silver lining for Merkel – unlike May, she doesn’t have to contemplate the diplomatic ramifications of attending a football match hosted by the nation accused of using a nerve agent against Russian nationals on foreign soil.
Atika Shubert and Nadine Schmidt reported from Berlin and Judith Vonberg wrote in London.
Correction: We've updated this story to correct the time of the meeting between Theresa May and Angela Merkel.