The debate as to the right path to take "caused a rift to open up" through German society. The debate became "polarised", and society became "harsher", said Chancellor Angela Merkel in her first government statement since she was re-elected. She defended the decision to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 and 2016, predominantly from Syria. She stressed, however, that at that time there had been an exceptional humanitarian situation. At the end of this legislative period, she hoped that it would be possible to take stock and note that the divisions have been overcome and the cohesion of society re-established.
People in need taken in
Angela Merkel firstly recalled that seven years ago, in the wake of the "Arab Spring", civil war broke out in Syria. Europe initially hoped that it would not be directly affected by the consequences. Part of the truth is also, continued the Chancellor self-critically, "that we realised too late that refugees were not being adequately provided for in neighbouring countries", and that gangs of human traffickers had then exploited the situation. "We took in people in need." It was an incredible test for society. The structures were not in place to deal with this sudden influx. "Our country can be very proud of what it achieved," said the Chancellor.
Five points the Chancellor considers important for the future:
1. There cannot and should not be any repeat of the sort of exceptional situation posed by the refugee influx in 2015 and 2016. The EU-Turkey Agreement has helped combat the business model of the traffickers.
2. UN aid programmes must not be so desperately under-funded as they were two years ago. The main task is to provide assistance locally. Since then Germany has been providing more support for the World Food Programme and UNHCR.
3. Angela Merkel condemned in the strongest possible terms the bombing raids carried out on a school for instance by Assad’s Syrian regime but she also criticised Russia, which turns a blind eye. Although we understand Turkey’s security interests, she continued, its actions in Afrin are unacceptable. "This too, we condemn in the strongest possible terms." Angela Merkel also called for better cooperation with African states in order to address the root causes of displacement.
4. Europe’s external borders must be protected. Angela Merkel called for a register recording all those entering and leaving the EU. Better controls are needed, because terrorist threats have become more acute. She thanked the security authorities, and declared, "Our free society will not let terrorists destroy our way of life."
5. Germany will continue to help those who are entitled to stay in the country. On the other hand, individuals with no permanent residence status must leave the country again. In total, no more than 180,000 to 220,000 refugees a year are to come to Germany. Angela Merkel hopes that the European Council will agree in June on a common asylum system.
The refugee situation magnified fundamental problems that already existed within society, said the Chancellor. Over the last few decades a lot of people from different countries have come to Germany. We must work together, she said, to end discrimination, but problems must be addressed too.
Improve the coexistence of faiths
The coalition agreement provides answers to existing problems. A lot of progress has been made, but we are still a long way from our goals in terms of coexistence and cohesion, declared the Chancellor. She announced her intention of putting together a package of measures to foster the rule of law, which is to include recruiting 15,000 new police officers. There must be respect for law enforcers, she said.
Germany has been moulded by Christianity and Judaism said Angela Merkel. But 4.5 million Muslims also live in country. Their religion, Islam, has now become part of Germany. "The coexistence of different faiths, in particular, poses challenges," said Angela Merkel. She urged that the national and state governments must work together to establish viable structures, also for Islam. The Chancellor believes that the German Islam Conference will continue to play an important part in this.
Strengthening social cohesion
Angela Merkel cited Article 1 of the German Basic Law or constitution as the crucial foundation for the cohesion of Germany’s society: Human dignity shall be inviolable. This makes it clear, declared Angela Merkel, "There is no place in our rule-of-law state for violence, racism and anti-Semitism." "We, the German government aim to overcome the rift in our society and create new cohesion," she stated. The prosperity of our country should benefit everybody. The aim is a society that stands out by virtue of its humanity justice and cohesion. Strengthening families is a priority, with one method being the new Baukindergeld which is designed to help families with children buy property. The new coalition, she said, will ease the burden on single parents and large families. Child poverty is a disgrace, she declared.
The reduction in the unemployment insurance contribution, the realignment of health insurance contributions with employers and employees paying half each, the dismantling of the solidarity tax, which should benefit 90 per cent of people will ease the burden on the people. At the same time though the country will remain on a sound financial footing. Since 2014, the German government has not incurred any new debts, and it will retain this course, assured the Chancellor.
Germany’s future is Europe
"Our future lies in Europe’s cohesion," declared the Chancellor with conviction. "Not in a patchwork of small states, not in a withdrawal into isolationism and not in national egotism." With a view to the transatlantic partnership with the USA and Canada, and to relations to China and Russia, the Chancellor called for "a lot more common ground in the foreign policy" of EU partners. The European Union can only defend its sovereignty, its interests and its values, and underpin its prosperity by working together, she stated.
Looking at defence spending she underlined the importance of Germany being a reliable partner within NATO. "In the coalition agreement we affirm our commitment to the goals of the alliance, and thus also to the financial contributions." Angela Merkel also declared that Germany needs operational forces with modern equipment. The latest report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces makes it very clear that there is a lot of work to do in this regard, although the last four years have seen a turn-around in defence spending.
"Germany can do this"
Angela Merkel re-asserted that she would do all she could to achieve the best for the people in Germany. Then, at the end of this legislative period the people might be able to say that "in Berlin" they have understood the results of the 2017 election and made a lot of concrete improvements for the people.
She expressed her hope that it would be possible to take stock and see that society has become more human, that rifts and polarisation have been lessened or even overcome, and that cohesion has grown again. She invited everyone to do their bit to achieve this, and closed her statement with the rallying call "We are all part of Germany!"