Horst Seehofer, the conservative interior minister in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, has long criticized her willingness to open the country's borders to migrants fleeing troubled regions in the Middle East and Africa. Last year he threatened to resign rather than disavow his position that Germany must be willing to turn away asylum-seekers. He famously called migration "the mother of all problems" in German politics.
So last week Seehofer, a leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), stirred dismay among longtime allies when he said Germany might be willing to accept 25 percent of the migrants who have reached Italy after perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.
The controversy highlighted the dilemma of Seehofer's effort to implement an immigration-policy triad of "humanity, integration, and limitation" in a country whose immigration debate became particularly fraught with Merkel's 2015 decision to open the borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. Her confident declaration, "Wir schaffen das," often translated as "We can manage" or "We can handle it," stirred outrage protests from critics who said the influx threatened to destabilize German society.
Last week, CSU leader Thomas Kreuzer expressed alarm at Seehofer's willingness to receive migrants who are now in Italy, where immigration has also stirred angry debate and political division. Kreuzer said the move would incentivize more such migrations. "That is something we don't want," he warned.
An editorial in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's most prominent newspapers, observed that Seehofer had once been the "toughest adversary" of Merkel's immigration policy and said he has now become "the master of the 180-degree turn". The paper, which takes a liberal view of immigration, said that until now, his policy triad had "emphasized limits far more than humanity".
Seehofer sought to downplay the dimensions of his offer. He said that over the past 15 months, while 2,199 people have been saved on or near the Italian coast, Germany has opened asylum processes for only 565 and only 225 are now in Germany. He said those numbers are small in comparison to those taken in by Greece. He said it was "unbelievable" that he needed to justify an effort aimed at "saving people from drowning".