Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed themes of moderation and consensus in her final state of the nation address. Her speech was a hommage to the work of her grand coalition, but the Social Democrats refused to join in.
Two days after a debate against her Social Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, drew tepid reviews, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the final session of this German parliament on the state of the nation. It was a chance for her to set out at length her agenda if re-elected.
Significantly, Merkel started out with economics. She said that employment was at an all-time high and that Germany was the envy of Europe. But with an eye toward the Dieselgate scandal, she hinted that the government would increase regulation and work toward the goals of e-mobility, but added that there would be no ban on diesel motors.
"Now is the time to act commensurately and with moderation,” Merkel said.
While stressing past German inventions such as the MP3, Merkel said that Germany needed to become more innovative and pledged to devote three percent of the state budget to research and development.
"We don't want to end up in the museum of technology,” Merkel said. "We want to lead the way.”
Other key areas
- On the topic of North Korea, Merkel said that there could only be a "peaceful, negotiated solution." She said that she had conferred with other European leaders, South Korea and the US, about the possibility of imposing further economic sanctions against North Korea.
- She repeated her criticism of Turkey for "increasingly departing from the path of the rule of law.” She again called upon Ankara to release German citizens she says are being held illegally in Turkish jails, and said that she would consult Germany's fellow EU states about suspending or ending potential Turkish accession to the bloc.
- Merkel said that progress was being made on the global crisis with refugees. She promised that Germany would work together with North African nations to stem the tide of migrants. "We still have to talk to them," she said. "It makes no sense to pretend that we can change the world simply by deciding things in the German Bundestag."
- She also defended her plans for an increase in German defense spending, saying that they had been decided upon before the election of Donald Trump as US president. Otherwise the foreign policy section of her speech contained nothing new.
SPD claims the credit
There was no overlooking the fact that Germany is holding a national election in less than three weeks and that Merkel’s grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) is in the process of dissolving itself. Her speech was repeatedly interrupted by SPD parliamentarians staking claims to various achievements of the past four years. That drew an amused, almost maternal response from the chancellor.
"I don’t understand what you’re doing here," Merkel said. "You should be happy about what we achieved together. Let’s celebrate our work in a coalition that was in many respects very successful."
You wouldn’t have known that from the SPD’s turn on the podium. While pointing out that the government had succeeded in instituting a minimum wage and a quota for women on the boards of major corporations, Social Democratic parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann said the credit should go exclusively to his party.
Oppermann said the Social Democrats would do more for pensioners and women. He said that the SPD would free up money to close Germany’s digital deficit with the rest of the world.
"This country needs a chancellor who acts in the social democratic sense," Oppermann said. "I don’t see this sort of courage in you."
Oppermann did not take Merkel to task on foreign-policy issues, which was hardly surprising given that the foreign ministers of the past four years came from the SPD. That task fell to the opposition parties.
Speaking for the Greens, party co-leader Cem Özdemir called upon the government to "stop cozying up" to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Left Party co-leader Sahra Wagenknecht accused Merkel of ignoring Germany’s social problems and conducting a "feel-good campaign."
Gabriel contra Merkel
The final session also featured reports by the government’s ministers. The most anticipated speaker in this section was SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel who is also deputy chancellor. How far would he go in attacking the chancellor, by whose side he had begun the session chatting amiably?
Gabriel began by thanking Merkel for her "fair" cooperation. But he went on to say that the chancellor would not have been able to stake out the positions she did, sometimes over objections by fellow conservatives, without the support of the SPD. His remarks played upon the idea of Merkel as a power politician without fixed ideological commitments.
Gabriel, one of the architects of this grand coalition, said the government could be satisfied that Germany had remained “relatively stable” despite the large influx of migrants, Brexit and the election of Trump in the US. But he accused the conservatives of planning to increase defense spending at the cost of Germany’s social-welfare system.
And he delivered an impassioned plea for Germany to invest more in helping weaker members of the European Union.
“We need to change the narrative of the EU,” Gabriel said. "We’re the economic and social winners of the European Union."
It was a preview of the sort of conflicts between conservatives and Social Democrats Germany can expect, if the electorate votes the grand coalition out of office.