At least once a year, the Berlin press corps has an opportunity to pepper the chancellor with prickly questions. This year’s annual summer press conference in the German capital was no exception, with a good-humored Angela Merkel addressing a wide range of issues for an hour and a half.
The sparing event on Tuesday took place just two days after her main challenger in next month’s general election, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz, accused her of ducking important reforms and being out of touch with voters, and just five days ahead of her TV debate with him, their only scheduled face-to-face encounter of the campaign
Ms. Merkel, a loyal fan of the German national soccer team, also appears to be a big admirer of the team’s controlled defensive play. She sees no need to risk her healthy lead against Mr. Schulz by going on the offensive. Current polls show her contender trailing by 13 points. Not surprisingly, her defensive campaign strategy has attracted a fair amount of criticism by the media that would like to see more headline-grabbing confrontations between the top two contenders. One reporter asked if she didn’t view her run for a fourth term after 12 years in power as a bit “dull.”
“If campaigning means to some that it’s only good when two sides are screaming at each other, then that’s not what I have in mind,” she replied, adding that he didn’t view this campaign as “boring.” Even though the German economy continues to roar ahead and is putting more and more people to work, she said there is still plenty to do, especially at the European level. If elected, Ms. Merkel said she would press ahead with a deeper integration of the euro zone, as espoused by France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron. She likes his idea of creating a euro-zone finance minister but could also imagine a combined “economics and finance minister” who could enable better coordination on budget and economic policies.
“If campaigning means to some that it’s only good when two sides are screaming at each other, then that’s not what I have in mind.”
Ms. Merkel referred to a proposal by her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to turn the European Stability Mechanism, which was established in 2012 to provide financial assistance in emergencies, into a broader European monetary fund, as a “very good idea.” Such a fund, she argued, would allow euro-zone members “to show the world that we have all the mechanisms in our portfolio to be able to react to unexpected situations.”
In the same breath, the 63-year-old leader supported the idea of creating a “euro budget that could be used to provide funds to countries engaged in painful economic reforms.” Such a budget, she added, would eliminate the need for countries like Spain to make deep cuts in its research institutions and universities, cuts “that don’t improve competitiveness.”
The chancellor appeared upbeat about the prospects of economies using the euro as their common currency. “Regarding the euro zone, we have very positive data,” she said. “All member states of the euro zone are showing economic growth, including Greece. I think we are in a much better today than we were a year ago.”
On immigration, a hot-button issue in 2015 and 2016 when more than 1.2 million asylum seekers poured into Germany alone, Ms. Merkel admitted that Europe “still has not done its homework” on long-term solutions to stem the flow of migrants to the continent. She pointed to a need to reform the EU program for registering asylum seekers and to share the burden of housing and later integrating those who stay. “We will only be able to live in prosperity and security if we look beyond our own backyard and take into account the economic development our own neighborhood,” she said, referring to Africa as being at Europe’s “front door.”
Turning to Turkey, Ms. Merkel said she would like to improve relations with the country, a key trade partner and a crucial player in Europe’s efforts to control the flow of migrants. But that “is currently not possible,” she noted, because of the country’s steady bending of rule-of-law principles. In that context, she called on the government in Ankara to release German citizens swept up in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt, claiming their imprisonment to be “unjustified.” While Germany has accused Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of attempting to silence his critics at home and abroad, he has called on voters in Germany to reject the country’s biggest parties in next month’s election. Under these circumstances, she ruled out an expansion of the EU’s customs union to include Turkey.
Nor was Ms. Merkel willing to “keep quiet” on concerns about the rule of law in Poland. “As much as I want to have very good relations with Poland, we cannot simply hold our mouths and say nothing for the sake of peace,” she said, noting that the spat between Brussels and Warsaw touches on the very “basis of cooperation within the European Union.”
Criticized by some for being too close to the auto industry, Ms. Merkel said she shared people’s “huge disappointment” about the diesel scandal and announced a second auto summit with car executives would take place in November.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org