5 things we learned as Merkel laid out her vision for the next four years
Angela Merkel made some surprising admissions in the eagerly-awaited first speech of her new Chancellorship on Wednesday, including that her most famous soundbite is “unbelievably banal.”
1. She admits to having been naive
The Chancellor started her speech by accepting that “something has changed in our country.” How else could one explain the fact that it has never taken so long to build a government, even though Germany is experienced an economic success unheard of since reunification, she asked.
She pointed to the refugee crisis as the primary cause for this change, calling it “a challenge that was unique in the history of the Federal Republic.”
She went on to say that Germany had made mistakes when it came to the refugee crisis. But if right-wing critics were hoping that she would say that Germany took in too many people, they were to be disappointed.
Merkel instead appeared to apologize for an initial lack of support for people fleeing wars in the Middle east and other regions.
She said that after war broke out in Syria, leaders including herself “only reacted half-heartedly and hoped that the problems wouldn’t affect us. That was a hope that in a digital world, was not only wrong, but also naive.”
European leaders “looked away” as smugglers exploited the hopes of refugees “with too little food and drink, not to speak of no education for their children.”
She added though, that Germany has “mastered this task [the refugee influx] on the whole”. To loud applause from MPs, she added that the country could be proud of this achievement.
2. She admits to being boring
The Chancellor isn’t exactly known for her soaring rhetoric. For a decade of her rule she had said barely a sentence that stuck in the memory. And that was the way she liked it: Merkel, to her credit is much more interested in policy than soundbites.
But one exception stands out. In August 2015, days before she opened the borders for Syrian refugees, she said of the refugee crisis “wir schaffen das” (we can manage it). It was a phrase that supporters of the policy used as a sign of her courage and opponents mocked as a sign of her delusion.
On Wednesday, Merkel said that the phrase was the perfect example of how divided the country had become through the refugee influx.
The debate over refugees had created a “divided country and a polarized atmosphere,” she said.
The division is so extreme "that the unbelievably banal sentence ‘Wir schaffen das’ that I said in August 2015, but which I have also used countless times in countless contexts in my political career as well as privately, came to be a crystallization point of this confrontation.”
So now we know. Merkel was the most surprised of us all that her humdrum phrase became the rallying call of the refugee crisis.
3. She wants to integrate Islam into state structures
Merkel reiterated her position in the debate over the place of Islam in Germany.
“Around 4.5 million Muslims live in Germany, the vast majority of these reject radicalism Islamist terror, just like most people in our society,” she said.
She continued that, while Germany is unquestionably a country that is historically Christian and Jewish, “it is also true to say that with a population of 4.5 million Muslims, Islam has become part of Germany.”
We all knew that this was her position on the debate. Much more interesting was what followed.
Noting that both Christianity and Judaism are linked to the state through taxation systems and common organizations at the federal and regional level, she said that it was time that the same happened for Islam.
This seems to suggest that the her government plans to take a much more interventionist role in the training of imams for mosques, something that has controversially often been left to Turkish organizations in the past.
4. Her new favourite word is Zusammenhalt
Throughout her speech Merkel referred to Zusammenhalt (solidarity). Zusammenhalt between Germans and minorities, between old and young and between rich and poor.
She said that Zusammenhalt begins in the family, mentioning that child benefits would be raised under the new government. She also said it was the aim of the new government to lift all children out of poverty.
“Child poverty in a country as rich as Germany is a disgrace,” she said.
Another aspect of solidarity she addressed was helping Germany’s renting population to find homes. She pledged that under the new government 1.5 million new homes would be built and €2 billion would be invested by the federal government in social housing.
She also made pledges on elderly care and health care which were received with loud applause from the Bundestag.
Using such a consensus word like Zusammenhalt is surely no accident. The main ingredient to success in Merkel's career has been her ability to stand above ideological divides.
By picking a word to define her new government that appeals to the social conscience of socialists as well as conservatives, she is clearly trying to repair her reputation as a consensus politician.
5. An economic union of Europe
Lest we forget, the previous fours years weren’t just marked by a refugee crisis. In another career defining moment, Merkel ensured in 2015 that Greece did not drop out of the Eurozone.
She made clear in her speech on Wednesday that the next four years would be about building new structures to prevent a repeat of the Greek debt crisis.
The Chancellor emphasized that she sees closer economic union as the next stage of European integration, while saying that the major decisions would still be made at the level of the individual states.
Economic integration “is much more than just the single market,” she said.
“We have experienced how the mistakes of one member of the union can bring the rest into danger. So that this doesn’t happen again, we need to develop a complete architecture for the Eurozone.”
All in all, Merkel seems to be hoping that, if the years 2013-2017 go down as a time when her Chancellorship was beset by crisis, historians will write that 2018-2021 were the years when she put the lessons she learned from those crises into practise.