Law and order often serve as a solid talking point on a campaign trail. With border crossings, both legal and not, on the rise in Germany, it has become an especially salient one. It is a topic to take center stage when Bavaria's ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) holds its pre-election conference this weekend.
Bavarian state elections take place on October 8. The conservative CSU has been in government since 1957 and is again leading the polls. Its chairman, State Premier Markus Söder, is feeling the pressure to perform better than last time, in 2018, where he lost over 10% on the previous election, garnering a mere 37% of the vote. This forced him to find a coalition partner, so he teamed up with the populist Free Voters, who have since been gaining traction.
Now, media-savvy Söder is calling for a limit to immigration nationwide, coining the term "Integrationsgrenze" (integration threshold) of 200,000 per year, a number that was already reached in August 2023.
Legal gray zone
Söder is looking to make the most out of the argument that he can keep Bavarians safe from illegal migration.
"As long as the EU's external borders are not effectively protected, we must secure our own borders," Söder said this week during a visit to a checkpoint run by the border police. "To that end, we are expanding the Bavarian border police force."
In 2018, he reinstituted Bavaria's state border police to patrol the borders with Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
Söder has touted the force as a "super success," last month telling the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that it has "caught human traffickers, weapons smugglers, drug dealers, document forgers and terrorist suspects."
From the roughly 820 officers it now employs, Söder said he aims for 1,500 by 2028.
Bavaria's border police, which needed special permission from federal authorities to operate, cannot do much more than carry out spot checks and turn over alleged wrongdoers they find to federal police. In its own description on the state police website, Bavarian authorities acknowledge that the presence of the border force helps boost the "public's sense of security."
That has led critics to argue that the extra force is more an exercise in wasteful police cosplay than a substantive contribution to public safety.
Simply putting more police on the ground will result in uncovering more criminality, but "whether that justifies the costs of another 750 officers is a completely separate question," Stephan Dünnwald, a member of the Bavarian Refugee Council, a nonprofit support association, told DW, referring to an older figure of the size the border force.
"Of course, they have investigative success stories," he added. "But to say, 'We protect Bavaria's borders from illegal immigration and the like,' they don't have the authority to do that."
Recorded illegal crossings up
Through July, illegal crossings into all of Germany more than doubled compared to those recorded in the same period last year, according to a federal police report released by domestic media. Most of the increase was along the Polish border, which does not affect Bavaria. The state's border with Austria saw illegal entries hold steady at just under 9,800.
Bavaria's Interior Ministry is quick to paint a worsening situation. Its figures through August this year mark a jump of about 26% over the same period last year. That, however, accounts for the "unauthorized entries" that its border police registered, which does not necessarily mean the situation, in absolute terms, is getting worse.
A Bavarian model for Germany
Söder has called for the rest of the country to adopt the Bavarian model. That idea has been supported by Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), which Söder's Bavarian CSU works with at the national level. Both party leaders have leaned heavily into law-and-order rhetoric in an effort to paint the Social Democrat-led federal government as weak on domestic security. They are also trying to win back voters who have recently given the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party a major boost in polls.
Some of that support is built on public fears of migration even as the aging country needs skilled workers from abroad to fill jobs.
From the perspective of law enforcement, more police looking out for illegal activity can only be a good thing. Although Germany's federal police have exclusive jurisdiction over the country's borders, "it is to be welcomed that, in addition to police surveillance on the border, police search measures can also be carried out further into the country," Heiko Teggatz, the chairperson of the federal police union, told DW.
"The path that Bavaria is taking with its own 'border police' is fundamentally correct," he added, supporting a nationwide rollout along the lines of the Bavarian model.
But Dünnwald of the Bavarian Refugee Council is calling on the European Commission to step in and check whether Bavaria is complying with EU law that permits internal border controls "only under very certain circumstances."
"More police, more control, the whole situation finds itself in a legal gray zone," he said. "Where police operate in a legal gray zone, it doesn't strengthen rule of law, but weakens it."
Edited by Rina Goldenberg
While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.