turned to her European neighbors this weekend for help with a fierce domestic dispute over immigration that is threatening to topple her three-party coalition.
Aides to the chancellor reached out to the governments of several European Union members on the front line of the Continent’s immigration crisis to sound out their willingness to readmit migrants that try to cross from their territory into Germany, European officials said on Sunday.
Among those approached were the governments of Austria, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria, the officials said. Berlin also liaised with the European Commission, the EU’s executive body.
Ms. Merkel’s move came after her own interior minister,
handed the chancellor an ultimatum last week, warning that he could close the country’s borders to certain categories of illegal migrants as early as Monday.
Mr. Seehofer chairs the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. While the two parties have historically been closely aligned, sharing a parliamentary group, the CSU has grown increasingly hostile to Ms. Merkel’s open-border refugee policy, which it has vowed to end ahead of a key election in October. Opinion polls suggest the CSU could lose its absolute majority amid a robust performance by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany.
The dispute erupted early last week when Mr. Seehofer, who was to unveil a 63-point “master-plan” to cut immigration, abruptly canceled his presentation after Ms. Merkel vetoed a single measure: the decision to turn back migrants with an open asylum application in another EU member state.
Currently, all asylum seekers are allowed into Germany pending a review of their cases. Officials close to Ms. Merkel said that a unilateral closure of the border would threaten the EU’s document-free travel zone, gum up cross-border economic activity and pile up political tension at a time of surging nationalism across Europe.
Mr. Seehofer, however, warned that he would consult his party’s governing body on Monday morning and, if given a mandate, could defy Ms. Merkel and immediately start turning back migrants ineligible for asylum. This would almost certainly force the chancellor to dismiss the minister and his party, leading to the loss of the government’s parliamentary majority.
Ms. Merkel’s weekend outreach to Germany’s southern neighbors appeared aimed at giving the chancellor diplomatic cover to allow Mr. Seehofer to implement his measure without risking a pushback from those countries. Under European Union rules, refugees must apply for asylum in the country where they first entered the bloc.
Highlighting the difficulties Ms. Merkel may face in achieving cross-border consensus on turning back migrants, Italian officials told The Journal that they wouldn’t agree to taking back asylum seekers from Germany.
A spokesman for Ms. Merkel confirmed talks about a possible summit of the leaders but gave no details about what was being discussed. Like Mr. Seehofer’s CSU, leaders of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will meet on Monday to prepare their response.
In an op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and several newspaper interviews over the weekend, Mr. Seehofer sounded slightly more conciliatory notes, stressing the urgency of implementing his proposals but also denying he had any intention of toppling the chancellor or ending the alliance between their two parties.
“The perception of a loss of control but also abdication of control have strengthened the populist forces in Europe. The political leadership of Germany and Europe must therefore convince citizens that we can manage migration, that we have control over events,” Mr. Seehofer wrote.
The governments of Austria and Italy, both of which include hard-line anti-immigration parties, have introduced tough policies aimed at reducing migration. Austrian officials told The Journal that they would welcome the closure of the German border, which they believe is acting as a magnet for asylum seekers.
They said they would transfer any migrants rejected by Germany back to the countries where they first applied for asylum, notably Italy and Greece. France is already implementing a similar policy under a bilateral agreement with Italy.
In a sign of how inter-EU relationships could quickly become strained, Italian officials have criticized both France’s longstanding policy and Austria’s threats to impose strict controls on the Brenner Pass along the two countries’ Alpine border.
in Rome and
Nektaria Stamouli in Athens
contributed to this article.