‘I’m really enjoying this!’ A more relaxed Angela Merkel rediscovers her voice
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is making the most of her remaining time in office.
This week, she made an uncharacteristically lively speech to EU parliament in Strasbourg and, though she had stated many of the ideas before, this time she was much more bold in outlining what she hopes will be a stronger, more integrated EU.
“We should work on the vision to one day create a true European army,” she told the chamber, giving her full backing to one of many eurozone reforms called for by French President Emmanuel Macron.
She also had a dig at the nationalist policies of US President Donald Trump, saying: “The times that we could rely on others without reservation are over. That means we Europeans have to take our destiny into our hands if we want to survive as a community.”
She received a standing ovation for her speech — and a few jeers. At one point, she grinned at MEPs and said: “I’m really enjoying this! I seem to be annoying a few people here today!”
For a supposedly lame duck, the Chancellor was in fine form.
As her potential successors jockey for position before the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party conference next month, Merkel is free to focus on securing her legacy. To do that, she also needs to ensure that she’s not pushed out before her time is up in 2021. So far, she has the support of Wolfgang Schauble, her former finance minister, current Bundestag President and also the eminence gris of the CDU.
“She’s taken the right decision at the right time,” Schauble told Deutsche Welle’s Tim Sebastian after her announcement. “Once elected as chancellor, you can only be thrown out without your own agreement if there is a majority in parliament who elects another chancellor. That’s unthinkable, cannot be imagined, in this parliament. So her position is constitutionally strong.”
The public seems to support that view. An Infratest dimap poll released Thursday showed that 56% of respondents want Merkel to stay for the remaining three years in office before the next general election. Her decision to step down may have also contributed to a drop in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), rendering irrelevant its key demand for Merkel to resign.
For the last week, Merkel has been using her public speeches to rally support for the EU as it faces multiple crises, from Brexit to Italy’s budget defiance. In Strasbourg, she gave a pointed warning to the Italian government: “Whoever tries to resolve problems by just taking on more debt, while ignoring previous commitments, is placing the fundamentals of stability and strength that underpin the euro into doubt,” she said.
But Merkel is also sounding the alarm that increasing nationalism is threatening democracy and the liberal world order that underpins the EU.
Last week, she chose to speak out at the memorial for Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” the 1938 rampage of state-sponsored violence by the Nazi regime that targeted Jewish communities and resulted in widespread looting and destruction of Jewish properties across Germany and Austria.
“There are two urgent questions that we need to answer,” she said at Berlin’s Rykestrasse Syangogue, one of the 1400 synagogues that was set ablaze that night. “First, what did we really learn from the Holocaust, this rupture of civilization? And second to the first question: Are our democratic institutions sufficiently strong so that an increase of anti-Semitism, or even if a majority presents anti-Semitism, can it be prevented in the future?”
She continued: “We must not allow our societies to be divided into us and them, we and them, we versus others. Every man has the right and can claim to be seen as an individual by the state. Secondly, democracy is the best of all feasible social systems. Even though life in a democracy may well be complicated on occasion. Democracy is more than to ensure majorities. It relies on balance. On a balance between majority and minority — between government and opposition. It relies on the division of powers.”
Merkel also warned that some segments of society were feeling left behind and looking to populist leaders offering “simple answers” and a “brutalization of language.”
On Friday, the Chancellor turned to the domestic task of healing the rifts in German society. Specifically, she traveled to the eastern town of Chemnitz, where the stabbing of a local man in August triggered spontaneous, violent demonstrations against Merkel and her migration policy by right-wing extremists.
Merkel answered questions from local residents at a town hall alongside the mayor of Chemnitz, but for some of her critics it was too little, too late. They pointed out that it took three months for Merkel to visit the town.
“I am a polarizing figure, I know that,” she said, explaining that she did not want to escalate tensions in the city earlier. “I did not want to come here in such heated moments.”
But only a few hundred came out to demonstrate against the Chancellor, far fewer than in previous protests. Merkel stayed for more than an hour, patiently answering questions from a selected group of local residents. She admitted Germany’s decision to welcome more than a million refugees between 2015 and 2016 was not organized in a way the public approved of, and acknowledged a number of high-profile crimes committed by asylum seekers. She also agreed that political decisions needed to be more transparent to the public.
One woman angrily confronted Merkel about her famous phrase “We can do it,” which was designed to bolster the country in the midst of the 2015 refugee influx: “What about finding an answer to the chaos, to this so-called ‘We can do it!’? We all thought you would admit: yes, we made mistakes and we need to fix that quickly,” said the woman.
Merkel responded: “I did say ‘We can do it’ because I saw that what was coming was a tremendous task. What kind of chancellor would I be, if I had said: ‘No, we cannot do it’?”
What she regretted, Merkel said, was not proactively creating a better refugee policy before tens of thousands began streaming into Europe. “I knew we had to do something,” she said. “My mistake was prior to the arrival of the refugees. That we did not help earlier to decide who can come to us and who cannot. I have seen from that, we were not prepared for such a task.”
For the last 13 years, Merkel has navigated the country through political crises and dilemmas. Now, she’s focused on securing her legacy.
But beyond the big speeches, Merkel also seems to be devoting her time to events like this, explaining her decisions to the voters who trusted her to lead the country for so long.