Last round

Merkel fights back on refugees

Merkel speaks to Bundestag
Finally ready to throw some punches. Source: Reuters

Some German chancellors have seized the opportunity to deliver powerful statements to their newly formed parliaments. Willy Brandt, in his 1969 government address, demanded that “Germany dare more democracy.” In 1982, Helmut Kohl called on the Bundestag to push for a “moral and spiritual renewal of Germany” and Gerhard Schröder, more than a decade later, urged parliamentarians to support ambitious labor and welfare reforms.

And Angela Merkel? If anyone had hoped for some historic catchphrase to come from the measured, sober chancellor at the start of her fourth and likely last term, they were disappointed. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t surprised as she lunged into her speech. The 63-year-old leader displayed unusual candor and self-criticism about a topic that has deeply divided the country: her decision to allow more than a million asylum seekers into the country.

“Something has changed our country,” Ms. Merkel said, devoting the first half of her speech to migrants, integration and Islam. “Although our country is doing well, although our economy is doing its best since reunification, many people are worried about the future.” Their angst, she admitted, hurt her conservatives and the Social Democrats in the September election, delivering them their worst results since World World II.

It also allowed the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist party on the far right, to enter parliament for the first time. That party now leads the opposition, after Ms. Merkel won over the Social Democratic Party to renew the “grand coalition” with her Christian Democratic Union and Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Merkel speaks to Bundestag
Arms are made for hugging. Source: DPA

If there is a remark the chancellor might be remembered for, it’s one she made at the height of the refugee crisis that has haunted her ever since: “We can do this.” In her address to parliamentarians, she revisited it. The chancellor referred to Germany’s acceptance of nearly 1.4 million refugees between 2015 and 2016 as a “humanitarian exception” that would not be repeated, pledging that her new government would take steps to better integrate migrants and help shape a more cohesive society. “I am convinced that Germany can do this — and Germany means all of us,” she said.

That remark was directed not only at the AfD but also members of her conservative bloc, including her new homeland minister, Horst Seehofer, who recently told the Bild newspaper that Islam doesn’t belong in Germany. While there is “no question that our country is historically Christian and Jewish,” the chancellor said “it is also true that Islam has meanwhile become a part of Germany,” pointing to the 4.5 million Muslims living there today. Some Germans, she acknowledged, may find that hard to accept.

In the other half of her speech, Ms. Merkel seemed to be more on the defensive and unwilling to provide details. She noted that “mistakes” in one branch can impact others, referring indirectly to the Dieselgate scandal that has engulfed the German auto industry and its suppliers. While demanding carmakers to make up for their past mistakes, she rejected the idea of introducing comprehensive driving bans on diesel vehicles, calling instead for tailored solutions to lower car emissions in heavily polluted cities.

“It’s about the long-term security and stability of the currency.”

Angela Merkel, German chancellor

Nor did the chancellor go into any detail about Germany’s policy toward the European Union, despite the EU being a top priority of the new coalition government. She emphasized the importance of European solidarity in the face of globalization; in the future it’s unlikely any single European country would represent more than 1 percent of the world population.

As for the euro zone, after weathering the worst of its crisis, Ms. Merkel called on the common currency group to create an overall architecture to prevent the actions of one member putting all the others at risk. “It’s about the long-term security and stability of the currency,” she said, adding this would include the development of a European monetary fund and steps to improve greater economic convergence among euro zone states.

Ms. Merkel had no breakthrough to announce on President Donald Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, following talks between finance minister Olaf Scholz and his US counterpart, Steven Mnuchin, and her economics minister, Peter Altmaier, and US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Before the US announced Thursday it would temporarily exclude the EU from the tariffs, she called the tariffs “unlawful” and warned of possible EU countermeasures.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Thomas Sigmund heads the Handelsblatt bureau in Berlin. To contact the authors: blau@handelsblatt.com and sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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