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Merkel talks up progress, stays silent on populism

Jefferson Chase
November 23, 2016

In her first major speech since declaring her intention to seek a fourth term, German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated for stability and gradual progress. Conspicuously, she didn't mention Donald Trump by name.

Bundestag Generaldebatte  Angela Merkel
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

Merkel: 'mutual respect' essential to democratic debate

Anyone who expected a fiery campaign speech from German Chancellor Angela Merkel was sorely disappointed by her speech on Wednesday. In a more than half-hour address to a full session of the German parliament, the chancellor sought to portray herself as the guarantor of slow but steady progress. What was noticeable in her remarks was the absence of any extended discussion of both Britain's decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election.

The closest Merkel got to addressing the rise of right-wing populism was to talk in general terms about changes in the world's political culture and media landscape.

"A lot of people are concerned about the stability of our social order," the chancellor said. "Suddenly it seems that what we considered self-evident isn't that self-evident after all."

Merkel said democracy, the social market economy and the culture of civilized debate were under threat and explicitly criticized fake news and social bots.

"People form their opinions differently than they did 25 years ago," Merkel said. "We have to learn to deal with this."

Merkel said that Germany needed to prevent hate speech because "it's not compatible with our ideals." She added that debates should be carried out "in the spirit of respect for others."

Mild criticism of the EU

EU Gipfel in Brüssel - Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel
Merkel admitted that the EU has shortcomingsImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

She then moved on foreign policy, specifically Turkey and Syria. She defended maintaining contact with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his increasingly undemocratic policies, and criticized Russia for supporting the Assad regime in Damascus.

She defended NATO and the European Union as international partnerships that were good for Germany, although she did acknowledge that the EU was often too cumbersome and was not always able to live up to promises concerning prosperity.

"Europe often fails to keep pace sometimes with developments," Merkel said. "Decisions need to be made more quickly. Otherwise Europe loses credibility with ordinary citizens."

She added that she was "not happy" about the likely demise of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with the United States, which US President-elect Donald Trump said he would pull the United States out of. But she pointedly eschewed mentioning Trump by name.

Nor did she say any direct words about the rise of the anti-immigration populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is currently attracted up to 15 percent support in public opinion polls.

"Better than ever before"

Deutschland Flüchtlinge kommen an der ZAA in Berlin an
Merkel said Germany should be "proud" of its role in the refugee crisisImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

She claimed the grand coalition between her conservative CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats had economically benefited most Germans.

"Real wages and pensions are rising," Merkel said. "Despite the suffering of some, for instance those on social benefits, which we cannot ignore, people in Germany are doing better than ever before."

She also portrayed her open stance toward waves of political refugees, especially from Syria, in the past two years as a point of pride for Germany.

"Despite all the critical discussions, last year there was a fantastic level of cooperation and solidarity," Merkel said. "Our country can truly be proud. I think one of the most urgent political tasks is the fight against illegal immigration and human trafficking."

She promised that refugees would be given instruction in German language and Western values and said that the majority of refugees wanted to integrate into German society. But she also said those who refused to integrate would not be permitted to remain in the country.

She concluded with an appeal for stability.

"We have a chance to shape global change, step by step in a humane way," Merkel said. "Let's continue working on this. Peace and security are the central needs of people in Germany."

Recriminations on the left

Deutschland Generaldebatte im Bundestag zum Haushalts-Etat 2017 Sahra Wagenknecht
Wagenknecht was as blunt as Merkel was measuredImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The session got off to a far more feisty start with a speech by Sahra Wagenknecht, the parliamentary chairwoman of the Left Party, the main opposition party in the Bundestag. Wagenknecht repeatedly mentioned Trump, the Brexit, the AfD and the leader of the far-right Front National in France, Marine Le Pen, while excoriating the chancellor.

Wagenknecht particularly took Merkel to task for the "arrogance of your policies" and for increasing the gap between rich and poor in Germany.

"You shouldn't be surprised that voters are deserting you in droves," the Left Party spokeswoman said. "You lack the courage to confront the economically powerful….You should start taking this seriously if you don't want to responsible for paving the way for a German Donald Trump in the chancellor's office."

Green parliamentary leader Anton Hofreiter also invoked the AfD and said that Merkel had no new ideas for the future.

"It's unclear what you want to do," Hofreit said in Merkel's direction. "Last time you said: You all know me. This time around, it's not enough to say: we'll continue with what we've been doing."

Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary leader of the Merkel's coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD), declined to criticize Merkel and instead attacked Wagenknecht.

"Your answer to more populism from the right is more populism from the right," Oppermann said. "Speeches like yours help strengthen the AfD."

There has been a lot of speculation that the SPD will try to regain the chancellorship in next years national election by putting together a parliamentary majority with the Greens and the Left. But there was little evidence of that on Wednesday.

Mixed reviews

Deutschland Kabinettssitzung in Berlin
The coming election could yield another grand coalitionImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Initial reaction to the debate ran in a number of directions. German public broadcaster ARD found Merkel's performance "erratic" and "distracted," while the chancellor struck Germany's other national public TV station ZDF as "relaxed" and "statesmanlike."

The Berliner Morgenpost newspaper saw the verbal arrows hurled at the Merkel by Hofreiter as a potential sign that the Greens are not thinking of a potential coalition with the conservatives in 2017 and predicted that the tone of the campaign would be significantly nastier than the previous two. By contrast the lack of attacks by the SPD on the chancellor was interpreted as an acknowledgement that the coming election could well lead to a continuation of the current grand coalition.

The Tagesspiegel newspaper pointed out that Merkel has no choice but to run as the candidate of continuity, even if the political winds are blowing in the direction of change, and that the SPD and the Greens, which also support the chancellor's refugee policies, have little chance to completely distance themselves from her.

In the hot-house world of social media, Wagenknecht's drew a lot of positive responses while a number of users took exception to Merkel's assertion that the German people were doing better than ever before.