Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday distanced herself from Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, saying there was “a huge difference” between her and the centre-left candidate seeking to take her crown.
Less than a month before a September 26 general election, Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservatives are slipping in opinion polls while Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) have taken the lead in a race still seen as wide open.
Germans do not directly elect their chancellor but surveys show Scholz would now be the favourite if they did — while the conservatives’ pick, Armin Laschet, has fallen behind after a string of gaffes.
“With me as chancellor there would never be a coalition with the (far-left) Linke, and whether this can be said of Olaf Scholz or not remains open,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
“So in that regard, there’s simply a huge difference for the future of Germany between me and him.”
Scholz, who is also the country’s vice chancellor, is presenting himself as the stability candidate and the natural heir to Merkel’s legacy despite hailing from a rival party.
He has even copied the famous “Merkel rhombus” hand gesture, pressing his thumbs and fingers into a diamond shape the same way the chancellor does.
Surveys suggest the September ballot could result in a three-way coalition government, potentially with uneasy bedfellows.
The latest Forsa survey for broadcasters NTV/RTL put the SPD at 23 percent, followed by the CDU/CSU at 21 percent and the Green party at 18 percent support.
While the Greens would be a logical partner in a possible SPD-led coalition, Scholz has come under fire for not explicitly ruling out a tie-up with the radical Linke party, which opposes NATO and is currently polling at around six percent.
The pro-business FDP party, polling at around 12 percent, would also be an option but they are traditionally wary of teaming up with the Greens.
Conservative politicians have accused Scholz of riding on Merkel’s coat-tails.
Bavarian premier Markus Soeder from the CSU welcomed Merkel’s pushback on Tuesday, saying she could not have been clearer.
“Everyone knows that Olaf Scholz wants to move to the left,” Soeder said.
Merkel herself is bowing out of politics after 16 years as chancellor.
Queen Elizabeth II will host German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visits Britain this week, Buckingham Palace said on Wednesday.
The Queen, who has met the chancellor several times during Merkel’s 16 years in power, will host the German leader at Windsor Castle, west of London.
Merkel’s visit is expected to be her last to Britain after the announcement she will retire from politics after upcoming legislative elections.
The chancellor was also among leaders hosted at this month’s G7 summit in Cornwall, southwest England, which the 95-year-old Queen attended.
On Friday, the German leader will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at his Chequers country retreat northwest of London.
The pair are expected to discuss Britain’s fractious post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, which overshadowed discussions at the G7.
Checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK under a protocol, signed separately from the Brexit trade deal agreed in December, has proven a particular point of contention between London and other European capitals.
Merkel has led the charge for the 27-member bloc to quarantine travellers from Britain and stop the spread on the continent of a more transmissible Delta variant strain of the coronavirus first identified in India.
The leader of Angela Merkel’s CDU party on Monday pushed back against the chancellor’s criticism that some of Germany’s 16 states are straying from agreed Covid-19 measures, insisting they are taking the pandemic seriously.
In an interview with the ARD broadcaster on Sunday night, Merkel had called several states out for failing to impose “emergency brake” rules requiring renewed restrictions for regions with high incidence rates.
She also directly criticised the chief of her CDU party Armin Laschet, who is also state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, for “choosing an implementation that carries too much room for manoeuvre”.
But Laschet on Monday hit back against the criticism, saying it “doesn’t help us if the federal government and states are pushing responsibility to each other”.
He insisted that all 16 state premiers are “taking this very seriously”.
“Everyone wants the number of infections to go down and everyone has taken the appropriate measures for their state, which are very different,” he said.
He also defended Tobias Hans, state premier of Saarland, who had been heavily criticised over his plans to end a shutdown as early as April 6.
– Plummeting support –
At a tense meeting last week, Merkel and the regional leaders had agreed to stick to national rules including strict shutdowns and curfews in areas with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days.
But under Germany’s federal system, each state can ultimately decide its own rules and some have failed to impose curfews and gone ahead with reopening measures, despite fierce criticism.
The small southwestern state of Saarland has said it plans to end its shutdown completely and open leisure, sports and entertainment facilities after Easter to those who can provide a negative test.
Asked if Laschet’s actions in North Rhine-Westphalia went against what was agreed, Merkel said: “There are several states that have taken a very broad interpretation, and that does not fill me with joy.”
The rapid spread of the British coronavirus variant has led to an exponential growth in new cases in Germany in recent weeks, just as the country was taking first steps towards reopening.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency reported 9,872 new cases in 24 hours on Monday and a national incidence rate of 134.4 per 100,000 people over the last seven days.
The spiralling infection rates and a sluggish vaccine rollout have led to plummeting support for Merkel’s CDU-CSU conservative alliance just six months ahead of a general election.
A poll for the Bild daily on Sunday placed the conservatives on just 25 percent, their lowest level for a year and well below the record low result of 32.9 percent they secured at the 2017 elections.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has summoned the leaders of Germany’s 16 states to an unexpected crisis meeting on Wednesday amid a backlash over pandemic measures, the chief of her CDU party said.
“The chancellor has invited the (regional leaders) at short notice for 11 o’clock today and I think that we will talk very critically there about what happened two days ago,” Armin Laschet told a regional parliament meeting in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
A government spokesman confirmed to AFP that a videoconference had been called on Wednesday morning “as a follow-up to Monday’s consultations”.
Merkel and the regional leaders have faced fierce criticism after agreeing to prolong shutdown measures and tighten them over Easter during marathon talks on Monday night.
As well as extending existing measures including keeping cultural, leisure and sporting facilities shut through to April 18, Merkel and the state premiers ordered a tougher shutdown between April 1 and 5.
Almost all shops will be closed during the five days, and religious services will be moved online over Easter. Only grocers will be allowed to open on Saturday April 3.
Media reports ahead of a Merkel press conference at 1130 GMT said that policy would now be scrapped.
Der Spiegel news magazine called the measures a “scandal”, claiming the government had “completely the wrong priorities” and should instead focus on improving its vaccination campaign and test strategy.
Daniel Guenther, the state premier of Schleswig-Holstein, told the DPA news agency Wednesday’s meeting would focus on “implementation problems” around the measures agreed over Easter.
The new restrictions come as infection numbers continue to rise in Germany, with 15,813 new cases reported in 24 hours on Wednesday by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency.
Patience is running thin in the country over a sluggish vaccine rollout, a delayed start to mass rapid testing and higher infection numbers despite months of shutdowns, with support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party at its lowest level for a year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday voiced support for EU chief Ursula von der Leyen’s threat to block AstraZeneca vaccines produced in the bloc from being exported, ahead of a crunch EU summit on the escalating row.
“I support Commission President Ursula von der Leyen,” said Merkel.
“We have a problem with AstraZeneca,” she added.
European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has been able to deliver its UK contract in full while falling short on its supplies to the EU.
In her tough warning to the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant last Saturday, von der Leyen said: “That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries.”
The warning comes as the European Union struggles to speed up its Covid-19 inoculation campaign, just as many member states are facing a third coronavirus wave and renewed curbs on public life.
Von der Leyen said AstraZeneca had delivered only 30 percent of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “confident” a Brexit deal hammered out between the European Union and the United Kingdom on Thursday was a “good outcome”.
“We will quickly be able to determine whether Germany can support today’s result of the negotiations,” she said in a statement, adding that her cabinet would meet in a telephone conference Monday to review the accord.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Monday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited him at a Berlin hospital where he was treated after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.
“I am very grateful to Chancellor Merkel for visiting me at the hospital,” the anti-corruption campaigner wrote on Twitter following reports of the meeting in German media.
The 44-year-old Kremlin critic was discharged from Charite hospital in Berlin last week after receiving treatment over several weeks for exposure to Novichok.
He fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in August in what his allies say was a state-sanctioned attack — labs in France, Germany and Sweden confirmed he had been poisoned.
German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that Merkel had visited Navalny in what it described as a “secret” meeting at Charite hospital that underscored the Chancellor’s personal commitment to Navalny’s case.
Navalny confirmed the meeting but argued the label “secret” was not accurate, saying: “Rather, a private meeting and conversation with the family.”
The Kremlin has denied allegations of involvement in the poisoning and accused Western leaders of launching a disinformation campaign over the opposition leader’s illness.
Russia insists medical tests carried out by doctors in Omsk found no poison in Navalny’s body. It says it lacks grounds for a criminal investigation, despite international calls for a transparent probe.
Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh has said the Kremlin critic plans to return to Russia but will remain in Germany until he has recovered.
Germany plans to take in 1,500 migrants currently taking shelter on Greek islands, government sources told AFP, in addition to around 150 unaccompanied minors from the burnt-out Moria camp.
Under a plan agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Berlin will take in migrants who have already secured refugee status, giving priority to families with children, the sources said.
Merkel’s right-left coalition government is in talks over the plan, with her junior partner Social Democrats expecting a deal by Wednesday.
After a fire laid waste to Greece’s biggest refugee camp Moria last week, pressure has grown on Merkel’s government to offer refuge to the 11,500 left homeless by the disaster.
While Berlin has voiced readiness to open its doors to more than the 150 minors, German media reported however that Athens opposed Germany taking in more asylum seekers from Moria.
Doing so may incite more migrants to set fire to their shelter in Greece in the hopes they would then be offered refuge by Europe’s biggest economy, according to Bild daily.
Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on Monday, just days before Germany takes on the rotating presidency of the European Union with an economy mired in the worst crisis since World War II.
Berlin’s chairing of the 27-member bloc will be its last with Merkel in charge, and could be the one that defines the legacy of the leader dubbed the “eternal chancellor”.
With the future of the bloc’s relationship with Britain still to be determined, a crucial shift to a lower carbon world in the balance and crises from Libya to Syria all jostling for attention, there is no shortage of burning issues to tackle.
But it is the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought which will dominate and concentrate minds.
“This crisis that we’re currently experiencing is different compared to any other we have experienced since the founding of Europe,” Merkel, in power since 2005, told parliament in an address laying out Berlin’s priorities for the EU presidency.
“Alone in Europe, it has claimed more than 100,000 lives. A few weeks of economic standstill was enough to endanger what we have built up over years.”
With all to play for, member states are anxiously looking to Europe’s biggest economy to take charge.
In an interview published Saturday, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said it was “very fortunate that Germany is taking over the presidency at this time of a major crisis.”
Merkel’s long experience and credibility “helps enormously,” she told the Handelsblatt newspaper.
– German ‘bulldozer’ –
Besides its geopolitical weight and economic heft, Germany takes on custodianship of the bloc with a strong hand as it has so far withstood the health emergency better than most other member states.
Compared to the debt crisis that threatened to sink the single currency zone in 2009-2010, Germany looks very different today — it’s out with Scrooge and in with Lady Bountiful.
Once an obstinate champion of budgetary rigour, Merkel’s government has ditched its no-new-debt dogma to throw resources at the crisis.
Its programme to shore up the economy totals more than a trillion euros in spending, loans and guarantees.
Together with Macron, Merkel sketched out the backbone of the 750 million-euro ($840-million) fund proposed by von der Leyen to bolster the bloc’s economy.
The fund would offer grants — with no repayment obligation — to countries hardest hit by the pandemic, a major policy U-turn for Berlin.
With an eye on the devastating blow taken by the worst-hit countries like Spain or Italy, Merkel explained that it was “imperative that Germany not only thinks of itself but is prepared for an extraordinary act of solidarity”.
“In such a crisis, everyone is expected to do what is necessary. And what is necessary in this case is rather extraordinary,” she told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
“Of course it’s good that things are moving forward finally. But it’s regrettable that without a jolt from crisis, this chancellor has usually lacked the drive to make changes,” complained weekly Der Spiegel of veteran firefighter Merkel — set to retire after elections late this year.
The recovery fund is likely to be among the key points raised when Merkel and Macron meet at German government retreat Meseberg on Monday.
Despite opposition from fiscal hardliners such as Austria and the Netherlaands, observers believe that the EU’s paymaster Berlin will ram through an accord.
“When the Germans are certain they are right, it’s very bulldozer, there is no margin for discussion,” a high-ranking EU official said.
– ‘Swan song’ –
An EU diplomat agreed, saying: “On the recovery fund, I expect Germany to dictate the whole process. Merkel is holding all the cards and (EU Council chief) Charles Michel will follow that.
“She also wants to get Brexit out of the way and she will always go for the deal as she wants to keep the West together. The third leg will be restoring ties with US after the election there.”
Merkel, who has ruled out running for a fifth term next year, won’t have much time.
Brexit talks will have to be done by the end of the year, while in November, the focus will be on whether US President Donald Trump, whose relationship with Merkel has been frosty at best, manages to hold on to his job.
What is clear is that Merkel’s fingerprints will be all over the EU’s roadmap through the next six months.
“This will be a very Merkel presidency, her swan song,” said the EU diplomat, adding that she would be using it “to craft her legacy”.
France, Germany and four other EU countries on Tuesday urged the European Union to take a greater role in preparing for any future pandemic, conceding that coronavirus responses had fallen short.
There should be a “common European approach” to such challenges in future, wrote France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel along with the leaders of Spain, Poland, Belgium and Denmark.
They addressed their letter and policy paper to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, in the strongest attempt yet by the bloc’s most powerful leaders to spur the EU executive to fix the disunity displayed during the crisis, especially in its earliest days.
As the global outbreak first took hold, member states privileged national responses by shutting borders, hoarding medical supplies and waving through major spending plans regardless of EU rules.
“It is an extraordinary situation, we will do what’s necessary and luckily Germany is relatively robust… we will do what we can to get through this situation well, and we will see at the end of that where our budget stands,” she said, stressing that ending the virus crisis “comes first”.
Maintaining a balanced or “black zero” budget has been a key selling point of Merkel‘s government, which believes that it would be irresponsible for the fast aging nation to incur more debt that would ultimately be left to a shrinking workforce to pay off.
But with the coronavirus outbreak forcing some countries to shut borders, companies to keep workforces home and foreign orders to collapse, calls have grown for Merkel‘s government to help prop up Germany’s economy.
“An economy like Germany’s, which is extremely export-dependent, is of course harder hit by global challenges” than one that is very concentrated on domestic demand, Merkel acknowledged, saying the government will announce liquidity help for firms this week.
The leader of Europe’s biggest economy said she was also prepared to look the other way if severely hit EU nations such as Italy were to flout the EU’s rules on limiting budget deficits as it fights the virus.
Her remarks came as Italy entered its second day of a national lockdown.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the closure of schools, gyms, museums, nightclubs and other venues across the country, which on Wednesday passed 10,000 confirmed infections.
Stressing why it was important to do whatever it takes to battle the virus, Merkel quoted experts saying that “60-70 percent of the population will be infected if the situation” continues without a vaccine in sight.
The leaders of France and Germany called Sunday for an end to Turkey’s offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, warning of dire humanitarian consequences and a boost for the Islamic State group.
Emmanuel Macron hosted Angela Merkel in Paris for a working dinner amid turmoil stirred up by Ankara’s attack and Britain’s pending exit from the European Union, both issues on the leaders’ agenda.
Macron told reporters the pair had spoken separately Sunday with US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deliver a single, clear message: “Our common wish is that the offensive must cease.”
“Our conviction… is that this offensive risks, and we see it already on the ground, to create unbearable humanitarian situations on one hand and on the other help IS re-emerge in the region,” he said at a joint press conference with the chancellor.
Merkel said she had spoken to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan for an hour and told him: “We must put an end to this Turkish invasion.
“There are humanitarian reasons for this,” she said, adding: “We can no longer accept this situation against the Kurds. Another solution must absolutely be found.”
Fighting has engulfed northern Syria since Wednesday when Ankara launched a long-threatened offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it considers “terrorists” linked to insurgents in Turkey.
Trump has been accused of abandoning a loyal ally in the fight against IS after ordering American troops to pull back from the border region.
At least 60 civilians have been killed in raids by Turkey and its proxies — Syrian ex-rebels, according to observers.
The UN says the violence has forced 130,000 people to flee their homes.
Arms Sales Stopped
France and Germany on Saturday suspended weapons exports to Turkey, amid international condemnation that had already seen Finland, Norway and The Netherlands stopping arms sales to Ankara.
A meeting in Luxembourg Monday of the European Union’s foreign affairs committee will discuss a coordinated European approach to the issue.
Macron has also called a French defence council meeting, involving Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the ministers of justice, foreign affairs, defence and the interior, for Sunday night.
The French president called for a stronger, more unified Europe in what he described as “difficult and sometimes worrying” times for the continent and the world.
One reason for this is Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union by a 31 October deadline with so far no “divorce deal” in place.
“We are about to lose a member and we will see how the discussions, which have advanced this weekend, will be finalised,” said Macron.
“In this context, it is very clear to me that we can allow ourselves neither division nor self-deception nor weakness.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday played down hopes of a breakthrough in his last-ditch bid to strike an exit deal with Europe.
On Monday, Macron will host European Council President Donald Tusk for a working lunch at the Elysee presidential residence, before heading to Toulouse in the south of France to lead a French-German ministers meeting with Merkel on issues of defence, security, and climate change.
On Wednesday evening, they will meet the EU’s incoming president Ursula von der Leyen, followed on Thursday and Friday by an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.
One issue likely to come up is the rejection by European MEPs of Sylvie Goulard, Macron’s chosen candidate for the European Commission portfolio of industrial policy, defence spending, high-tech and space — a rebuff considered a major political blow to the French president.
“I believe very deeply that in this moment in particular, Europe cannot allow itself the luxury of vengeance, of small disputes, or to add internal crises to the tensions of the world already affecting us,” he said Sunday.