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Small opposition, loud voice

April 9, 2014

Germany's opposition parties, outnumbered by some margin under Angela Merkel's grand coalition government, have gone on the offensive in the major budget debate in the Bundestag - not least on social and economic issues.

Berlin Generaldebatte im Bundestag Angela Merkel
Image: Reuters

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Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the new policy plans of her grand coalition government in parliament in Berlin on Wednesday, against accusations of "social ignorance" from opposition Greens and Left parties.

The grand debate's primary purpose is to debate the budget, although traditionally parties use the opportunity to address any issues they choose. Merkel herself praised her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, for submitting a budget in which the German government would take on no new debts. Should the predicted figures bear out, it would be Germany's first such budget since 1969, fueled in large part by record tax revenues.

Merkel said that Schäuble, who has held the key post since 2009, had worked in a "prudent and insistent manner" to keep the government on course to reducing its debts - before saying that employers, employees and businesses had also played their part. "All of them deserve our thanks in this hour," Merkel said.

Even Germany, considered one of Europe's strongest economies, has national debt equating to almost 80 percent of annual gross domestic product. In 2013, the German government spent only a fraction less on debt repayment than it did on the defense ministry.

Opposition takes aim on social issues

Despite Merkel's grand coalition holding more than 500 of the 631 seats, the chancellor was put to task by vocal leaders from the opposition.

"You are ignoring the social dislocations in this country, you are ignoring the growing wealth in the hands of a shrinking few - you are refusing to work in the fight against poverty," Left party chairwoman Katja Kipping said to Merkel at the start of the grand debate, whose main purpose is to clear the government's 2014 budget.

Berlin Generaldebatte im Bundestag Merkel und Gabriel
Merkel and Gabriel conferred animatedly during the Greens' opening salvoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Greens issued similar criticisms on perhaps the policy issue closest to the ecologist party's heart, Germany's transition towards renewable energies and the phase-out of nuclear energy - a policy often labeled with its German name, Energiewende. With a view to special subsidies granted to energy-intensive German industries as a counterbalance to rising electricity bills, the Greens' Katrin Göring-Eckhardt fired her major salvo at the junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD).

Addressing Energy and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD chairman, Göring Eckardd said: "It's the little people who are paying the bills on your watch." Göring-Eckardt said she wished for a return of defeated Social Democrat chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, saying he was at least willing "to stand up to big business."

Merkel's speech was more reserved than those of her opponents, although she still managed to subtly chide a few allies and opponents. On the issue of the controversial energy reform plans - which Berlin only cleared with skeptical anti-trust regulators in Brussels on Tuesday - Merkel said the German government needed to find a way to "combine climate change and job provision."

Merkel said that it must not be the government's goal "that we weaken our own strengths by virtue of this Energiewende."

The chancellor also warned of ongoing economic risks in the world. She lauded the progress made by struggling eurozone countries like Ireland and Portugal, but alluded to a "fragile situation worldwide, if you look at some developments in developing countries."

World markets have also struggled amid developments in Ukraine. Merkel said comparatively little on the conflict itself, except that Russia currently appeared unwilling to "de-escalate" the tensions, but acknowledged the fresh economic risks posed by the standoff over Crimea.

"Therefore we must focus all of our efforts on working for a strong Germany, for a strong Europe, and for strong partnerships around the world," Merkel said.

msh/rg (AFP, dpa)