Merkel’s Mea Culpa on Refugees Aimed at Wooing Back Voters

  • Chancellor distances herself from ‘we can do this’ phrase
  • Merkel responds to latest electoral setback in state vote

Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a rare mea culpa, distancing herself from the trademark upbeat phrase she adopted at the beginning of Germany’s refugee influx and admitting mistakes in the handling of the crisis after suffering another state election defeat.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Merkel, speaking after her party posted its worst results in a Berlin election in the postwar era, said her “we can do this” slogan had taken on an empty meaning and that she no longer liked to use it. The catchphrase she began using a year ago after her open-border policy helped trigger the arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers has been assailed by opponents as a glib expression of a policy they say hasn’t been thought through.

Angela Merkel on Sept. 19.

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“Too much has been interpreted into this,” the chancellor said during a nationally televised press conference on Monday. To critics, the phrase has become a form of “provocation,” Merkel said, “and that’s never what I meant.” Her remarks come less than two months after she vigorously defended the phrase during her annual summer press conference.

Since then, her Christian Democratic Union has suffered two electoral defeats in state elections, with the chancellor’s beleaguered migration policy under fire from political opponents after about a million asylum seekers entered Germany last year. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has capitalized on the discontent, winning won more than 14 percent of the vote in Berlin on Sunday after coming in ahead of the CDU in an eastern German state two weeks ago.

Unsatisfactory Result

The CDU nabbed just 18 percent of the vote in the German capital, a more than 5 percentage point drop from the last election in the city-state in 2011. The CDU, the junior partner in the city’s coalition, is likely to drop out of the government as a result of the poor showing. Merkel called the setback a “very unsatisfactory, very disappointing result."

The chancellor took partial responsibility for the loss, citing Germany’s past mistakes in being slow to work toward a European Union response to migration. Still, she didn’t back away from her decision to allow tens of thousands of asylum seekers into Germany from Hungary in last September -- and said she would continue to reduce the number of migrants entering Germany.

“That doesn’t mean that the concrete decisions in the past year were not right; I stand by these decisions fully,” Merkel said. “We want to ensure that such a situation doesn’t happen again.”


Giving a glimpse into her political thinking as she considers whether to seek a fourth term, Merkel said she remained “motivated” and would fight to gain back voters that her party has lost. She dodged giving a direct answer to the question foremost on everyone’s mind: whether she will run again next year.

“Honestly, I think when I get up in the morning I’m always in a fighting mood,” Merkel said. “My inner stance is that I’m motivated every day.”

Merkel said she can’t hope to reach people who simply shout for her to quit, an allusion to protesters at her public appearances over the past year, though she pledged to address voters who feel left out by globalization.

“Something is creeping up on Europe where we realize that we’re not ahead of the pack in all areas in a globalized world, that we’re not setting the pace in this world,” Merkel said. What’s needed is “honest answers,” she said.

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