Merkel avoids end-of-era nostalgia in final Bundestag address

Departing chancellor says EU states must learn from mistakes in handling pandemic

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel before  her last official ‘Regierungserklärung’  in the Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel before her last official ‘Regierungserklärung’ in the Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

 

There was an air of expectation in the Bundestag chamber on Thursday when chancellor Angela Merkel took to the podium.

This was her last official “Regierungserklärung” or government policy statement to parliament ahead of a European Council meeting. But, in keeping with tradition since she took office in 2005, the chancellor needed only a few sentences to extinguish any expectations over her address. 

The Regierungserklärung was once a rhetorical highlight of German parliamentary life but, in the 16-year Merkel era, it has been degraded to a political to-do list that reflects the chancellor’s no-frills approach to policy.

For 15 minutes on Thursday, she laid out the last weeks of the government’s agenda – at home, in the EU and internationally – like a series of orderly Lego bricks.

EU-wide emergency co-operation must learn from Covid-19 mistakes. The EU must create a new format for contact with Russia and balance strategic interests with China against security concerns. Pandemic concerns must not distract from the “massive global challenge” of climate change that “is about about nothing less than the future of our planet”.

Anyone waiting for a final rhetorical flourish, or a nod to the end of an era, was disappointed.

The closest she came to a summary of her approach to politics came at the last moment, looking back at Europe’s last 16 months battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’m convinced that only as a union of states can we master successfully the challenges of the pandemic,” she said. “Here, a sovereign European Union should be a strong partner.”

Opposition benches

After she departed the podium, politicians from nearly all camps praised her steady work for the European project. From the opposition benches, liberal Free Democrat (FDP) leader Christian Lindner said: “In the last 16 years you have always applied your energy and intellectual talents selflessly in the service of Germany and Europe, and with that have earned great credit.”

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was less flattering in its appraisal of Merkel’s EU legacy.

“This address passed by like all the others, without even a flicker of acknowledgment of flawed decisions,” said Alice Weidel, AfD floor co-leader.

Thursday’s session marked the first joint appearance of the three politicians hoping to inherit Merkel’s key to the chancellery after the September 26th federal election.

First up was Social Democrat (SPD) finance minister Olaf Scholz, who said Merkel had “made much progress for Europe”.

But he made the case for an even more passionate German engagement with Europe. A Chancellor Scholz, he hinted, would end a Merkel-era obsession with balanced budgets, often at the cost of its neighbours. And he would allow EU financial stimulus measures become standard policy and not just a pandemic one-off.

“We have to understand that Europe will only get stronger if more politics happens at this level, when Europe is not just a common market,” said Scholz.

He was followed by a rare visitor to the Bundestag: CDU leader and chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet agreed that “we need Europe more than ever”. Accusing the AfD of “harming German interests”, he added: “We’re not going to let a deadly virus nor anti-European gloating and scepticism – and certainly not populists and nationalists – destroy this Europe.”

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock, whose party is second in opinion polls, was the last chancellor hopeful to speak.

She said the EU needs to learn “clear language” to tackle human rights abuses among its own members – a nod to a new Hungarian law restricting materials deemed to promote homosexuality.

She praised Merkel for stabilising the EU in a time of crisis, but said the union now needs “a German federal government that prioritises both the ecological and European”.