BERLIN — Europe breathed a sigh of relief late Monday night when, at just after 10 p.m., Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats and the heads of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democrats, declared they had reached a compromise on migration policy. The fight, in which the Bavarians demanded a significant tightening of Germany’s borders against refugees, had gone on for weeks and threatened, at the end, to take down the government.
Had Ms. Merkel fallen, even temporarily, the European Union would have lost one of its last stalwart advocates — at a time when the forces of illiberalism are growing even stronger.
But is the crisis really over? Can Germany and Europe finally breathe again? Hardly. The damage is here to stay.
The superficial explanation for the crisis is that the C.S.U., facing state elections in October, wanted to shore up its conservative base against the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials A.f.D. But this crisis is about much more than that. In the past weeks, Germany has seen an unprecedented and possibly irreparable deterioration in its political culture.
Simply put, the C.S.U. didn’t just borrow an issue from the far right; by demonizing immigrants and harping on a nonexistent refugee “crisis” — in fact, refugee arrivals are down significantly — it adopted a politics of fear and panic, for which it positioned itself as the savior. This is a new and dangerous turn in Germany’s once rational and consensus-driven political climate.
The C.S.U. then used the fear it generated to force Ms. Merkel to accept an uncomfortable compromise — holding camps along the border for newly arrived refugees. The alternative was a collapse of the government, new elections and most likely an improved standing for the A.f.D. Whatever the outcome, it would have meant many more months without reliable German leadership for Europe and a stalled opportunity to build a stronger Franco-German dynamic, arguably the only thing holding the European Union together.
Nor was the C.S.U.’s demand a small one, though on paper, the dispute seems remarkably narrow. It involved the third subpoint to Item 27 in a policy paper signed by the German interior minister, Horst Seehofer, of the C.S.U. But that subpoint contained multitudes: It dealt with so-called secondary migration within the European Union.
According to the Dublin Convention, which regulates which country is responsible for examining an asylum seeker’s plea for protection, the first country a migrant enters is in charge. In most actual cases, this is one of the southern European states bordering the Mediterranean. However, many migrants don’t stay in those countries but move on to the north of Europe. Germany has the right to send “secondary migrants” back. But in many cases, the legal protections of the Dublin regulation and exemptions, for example for minors, require further examination of each individual case, something that legal scholars argue cannot be done at the border. Also, the countries of first entry often decline to take the migrants back.
Hence the dispute. Mr. Seehofer demanded that Germany send such secondary migrants back…