Angela Merkel has called for a burqa ban in Germany and said the refugee crisis “must never be repeated” while making her pitch for a fourth term as Chancellor. Addressing her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, Ms Merkel said she would support a nationwide prohibition on Islamic veils covering the face. "The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country," she told delegates in Essen, sparking rapturous applause. "It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible."
Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister and one of Ms Merkel’s closest allies in the CDU, proposed a partial burqa ban in August and called the veils "contrary to integration". He said the law would apply in “places where it is necessary for our society's coexistence” including government offices, schools and universities and courtrooms, as well as demonstrations. Dutch MPs voted for a similar prohibition in the Netherlands last month, covering public transport, education, healthcare and government buildings and punishing any infractions with fines. Support for bans on full-face veils has been growing across Europe since France became the first country to implement such a law in 2011, followed by countries including Belgium, Bulgaria and parts of Switzerland.
Ms Merkel ran unopposed for a new term leading the CDU, who first elected her chairwoman in 2000. She kept her position with the support of 89.5 per cent of party members, down on the 96.7 per cent result of two years ago. Her popularity has been severely dented by growing anti-migrant sentiment in Germany following the arrival of around one million asylum seekers in the continuing refugee crisis.
Ms Merkel has been widely criticised for her decision to open the borders in September 2015, with opponents blaming the policy for mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and two terror attacks by Isis supporters. She has repeatedly refused to reverse the policy amid a string of regional election defeats for her CDU party, but struck a new tone on Tuesday. “A situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated,” she said. “That was and is our, and my, declared political aim.”
While Ms Merkel has continued to insist that Germany will take in people in genuine need of protection, her government has moved to toughen asylum rules and declare several countries ”safe“ - meaning people from there cannot expect to receive protection in Germany. She was also a driving force behind an agreement between the EU and Turkey earlier this year aiming to stop crossings over the Aegean Sea by detaining migrants in Greece under the threat of deportation.
As well as dischord over her policy on refugees, members of the CDU have also been unhappy about a perceived shift to the left during her 11 years as Chancellor. Polls show a solid lead for the party, though their support is well short of the 41.5 per cent they won in Germany's 2013 election.
They face new competition from the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has thrived by attacking Ms Merkel's policies on refugees and supports burqa bans as part of a wider anti-Islam stance. Ms Merkel spoke for an hour and 20 minutes at her party’s rally, with the wide-ranging speech followed by 11 minutes of applause.
“2016 did not bring more calm and stability. On the contrary,” she told around 1,000 CDU members. “We are faced with a world, especially after the US election, that needs to re-order itself, with regard to Nato and the relationship with Russia.”
The Chancellor called the bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo a “disgrace” and warned Britain there would be no “cherry picking” in its Brexit talks. She also made a case for free trade and won applause when she talked about slashing German unemployment. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's defeat in a referendum on Sunday and the impending departure of French President Francois Hollande have enforced her status as Europe's most experienced leader, having come into office in 2005.
But Ms Merkel acknowledged that next year's election campaign would be like none she has waged before, taking place against a backdrop of a polarised society, threats from the far-right and the possibility of a “Red-Red-Green” coalition of the SPD, left-wing Linke, and the Greens.
“It is our job to be so strong as to prevent that,” she told the conference. “The 2017 election for the Bundestag will be difficult like no previous election – at least since German reunification. You must help me.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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