Würzburg, Ansbach, Munich, Reutlingen - after a series of unconnected attacks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hurried back to Berlin on Thursday, earlier than planned, to answer journalists' questions at her annual summer press conference. She placated and reassured for 90 minutes, and at times she was even blunt. A few sentences were memorable - "the fact that two men that came to us as refugees were responsible for the attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach is an affront to the country that took them in" and "we'll manage it" - but many of her answers were more vague. What did Merkel really say?
Stance on Iraq
Merkel: "I never support war. I did not support the war in Iraq. I was very upset that it was not possible to come up with a common position between the Europeans and the United States."
That is not true. As the leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union at the time, Merkel announced her support for the United States and United Kingdom before the Iraq War began in 2003. Merkel defended the US-UK invasion as an unavoidable approach to damage containment - despite broad reservations among the German population and the CDU party base. Currently, the chancellor supports the fight against the "Islamic State," which, after repeated follow-up questions, she explicitly referred to as war.
Mistakes in policy
Merkel: "There is no question that this is a challenging time. But the task of the chancellor is to master the times - together with many others. Thankfully there are many people that aid in this task: I count the entire government in that regard."
Of course, not all members of the government support Merkel's policies. Her decision to allow refugees stuck in Hungary to travel straight to Germany last summer was a decision that garnered harsh criticism from the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sibling party. CSU officials called it the "wrong decision." Since then, members of her own CDU have been calling for a limit to immigration. The chancellor has also come under pressure following recent attacks. The CSU accused Merkel and her refugee policy of being partially responsible for the Würzburg, Ansbach and Reutlingen incidents. In an interview with the Bayernkurier, a monthly Bavarian conservative political magazine, CSU boss Horst Seehofer said that "above all it has become clear just what security risks the chancellor has subjected us to with her open borders and her open arms." That is an exceedingly serious accusation from within a government party that could also put the chancellor under increasing pressure within her ruling coalition.
Merkel: "Turkey, as regards the EU-Turkey agreement, has greatly strengthened the protection of borders and brought illegal border crossings to a standstill. And I think that is in everyone's best interest. No one can just sit by and watch as people continue to drown or be injured in the narrow strait between NATO member states."
Merkel is right. No one can simply stand by as hundreds of people drown in the Aegean Sea. Nevertheless, the question of whether the EU-Turkey agreement can offer a long-term solution is contentious. Less debatable is the fact that the drop in numbers of refugees arriving in Germany has to do in large part with the closing of the Balkan land route. An additional factor might be that Turkey is keeping better-educated Syrian refugees from traveling onward to the European Union. Unsettling developments in Turkey in the wake of the recent failed military coup are also raising questions about how long the agreement with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be justified.
'We'll manage it'
Merkel: "I am as convinced today that we will manage this, our historical task, as I was back then. This is a historic test in times of globalization. We will manage it. Incidentally we have achieved many good things over the past 11 months."
Yes and no. Over the past several months, Germany has restricted asylum policies. And a new integration bill will supposedly make it easier for refugees to enter the German workforce. At the same time, the bill threatens people who fail to integrate with limits to welfare payments and the denial of residency permits. Berlin was instrumental in orchestrating the refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey, which allows for the deportation of refugees not granted asylum from Greece to Turkey and commits the EU to taking in Syrian refugees from Turkey on a one-to-one basis. Germany is also pressuring governments in North Africa to take back citizens once Germany rejects their asylum applications. The government also wants to categorize Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria as "safe countries of origin." Thus far, all attempts to do so have failed to gain the approval of the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament. These measures have had an effect: The number of refugees arriving in Germany has gone down considerably this year, to an average of about 16,000 a month over the past few months - that is far fewer than the 1 million refugees who arrived in 2015.
Merkel: "In analyzing what has just happened, we will concentrate on exactly those points where more must be done."
Merkel also presented a set of security measures at the press conference. But there was nothing new in it. All of the points that she mentioned have already been put forth by a number of other German politicians. Many have already been decided upon and are being planned, such as an agency that will be tasked with deciphering internet communications. Others, such as an early warning system for signs of radicalization, already exist. Closer cooperation between the army and police in the case of large-scale terror attacks has already been written into the latest white paper on security policy. And stronger ties between international security agencies as recently discussed by Merkel and US President Barack Obama will take months to coordinate. To date, the implementation of most of these measures has failed.