BERLIN (NYTIMES, REUTERS, AFP) - Germany's interior minister vowed on Monday (June 18) to begin turning back migrants at the border by July if Angela Merkel fails to find solutions with European partners, but the chancellor rejected the threat.
Merkel said she would seek an agreement with European nations at a June 28-29 EU summit, but stressed there was "no automatism" about rejecting asylum seekers if no deals are reached.
The brewing dispute over Merkel's refugee policy is threatening to bring down the German government only three months after it was sworn in.
Merkel told reporters on Monday that when it comes to asylum policy in the European Union, it was important to see what other countries wanted rather than just making demands.
Merkel said there were two legal acts - including one on solidarity - on which there was not yet agreement in the European Union, adding: "It will need to be the case - and I will of course discuss this with my partners - that it's not just us who can demand something but we also need to talk about what is important for others."
"We wish the chancellor much luck," Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told a news conference after the his Christian Social Union (CSU) party unanimously backed his new immigration plan.
"But we stick to our position that should the immediate rejection at the border not be possible, I would immediately order the police that people who either have prohibition of entry or prohibition of stay should be immediately turned away at the border," he said.
This includes migrants who have either registered or applied for asylum in another EU country, he added.
At the heart of the dispute is a pledge by Seehofer to reverse the open-door policy toward migrants that the chancellor adopted in the summer of 2015, when she agreed that anyone seeking asylum could enter Germany.
Seehofer leads the CSU, the Bavarian conservative sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and a crucial coalition partner.
More than one million people entered Germany in the first year of the asylum policy, a majority of them coming up through Bavaria, which shares an 800km border with Austria.
At the time, Bavarians turned out in droves to welcome the refugees with gifts of food and clothing at bus and train stations, and the government of Munich pledged to provide a bed for every migrant headed there. But the state has since soured on such generosity.
Seehofer has vowed to refuse entry to undocumented migrants and those who have already registered in another European Union member country, part of what the Bavarian conservatives are calling an "asylum reversal".
The chancellor and her Christian Democrats pledged in the agreement defining the terms of their government that 2015 would remain an exception that was not to be repeated. But Seehofer's party faces a crucial election in October, and it is determined to toughen its stance on migration, faced with the growing popularity of the anti-immigrant, populist party Alternative for Germany.
"We are convinced that Germany needs reversal in its asylum policy," said Markus Söder, a member of Seehofer's party and the governor of Bavaria. "Of course, it would be good if there is a European solution, but in three years that hasn't been reached."
As interior minister, Seehofer has drawn up a 63-point plan for tackling migration to Germany. It was supposed to be put before the Cabinet last week, but Merkel refused to approve the point about turning back people at the borders.
The chancellor has long insisted that migration is a Europe-wide problem that can be solved only through a Europe-wide agreement, and that adopting Seehofer's position would spell the end to freedom of movement throughout the European Union, a cornerstone of membership in the bloc.
Under what is known as the Schengen Agreement, most countries in the bloc allow foreigners who enter one member state to cross into others without showing their passports or clearing customs.
Merkel has been asking her coalition to delay addressing the question until EU leaders convene in Brussels to discuss immigration and other issues affecting the 28 members of the bloc on June 28 and 29.
But the migration issue has stymied the partners for years, and the recent rise of euroskeptic governments has not made the efforts easier.
Members of her own conservative party are split, with the more conservative wing backing Seehofer and the more centrist members throwing their weight behind the chancellor.
"We won't accept that the Schengen system is given up on the Belgian, Dutch and the French and Luxembourg western borders," said Armin Laschet, the conservative governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
"A European solution is the only acceptable way."
If Seehofer, who has long been critical of the chancellor, decides to defy her, it could spell an end to the 70-year alliance between his Bavarian conservatives and those whom she represents in the remainder of the country.
That, in turn, could lead to the collapse of Merkel's government, which also includes the center-left Social Democrats, who joined only reluctantly and are still struggling to recover from their poor showing in the national election last September.
Later Monday, the chancellor is to meet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, representing the new, populist government in Rome, which has taken a hard line on migration.
Italy's support will be crucial if the chancellor is to draw up a joint EU agreement on the issue.