Merkel Aced Her Most Important Speech

Her message "We can manage it" recalled past German gambles that paid off.

A well-earned ovation.

Photographer: Thomas Lohnes

It should have been her Nobel lecture, but in practical terms, about 1,000 members of Germany's Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) were probably a better audience for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech on Monday. And Merkel is nothing if not practical.

Before she appeared at the annual party conference in Karlsruhe, there was the usual talk of rifts and internal tensions because of Merkel's stance on refugees. When she was done, she had to stop a nine-minute standing ovation by saying, "We still have work to do today." The weekly Der Spiegel called this the most important speech of her career.  That may be an exaggeration, but Merkel, who is not eloquent by nature or even by training despite a political career that now includes 10 years as chancellor, handled it as if she had a lot to prove.

Perhaps she did. A million asylum-seekers have arrived in Germany since the beginning of the year. Most Germans agree that accepting them when they streamed from Hungary across the Austrian border last summer was a "humanitarian imperative" -- the CDU members also clapped when she used the phrase on Monday -- but that doesn't go far enough toward explaining why Germany has done little to discourage more from coming. "Wir schaffen es," ("We can manage it") Merkel has kept repeating -- but how could she say that, how did she know?

So Merkel explained -- by appealing emotionally to her fellow party members' pride.

She cited three former CDU chancellors who had made similar iffy promises. "We choose freedom," Konrad Adenauer told the German parliament in 1952, as he sought support for the Paris treaty, the first precursor of the European Union. Ludwig Erhard promised "prosperity for all" in 1957, some years before he became the father of the German economic miracle. And Helmut Kohl spoke of "blooming landscapes" in the five German states that constituted Communist East Germany months before reunification became a reality.

"It is our country's identity to achieve bigger things," Merkel said. The ability to show "was in uns steckt" ("what we're made of"), she said, was what her party was about.

German national pride is dangerous ground. Shriller voices have appealed to it in the name of nastier causes. Yet Merkel's strength lies in knowing how to wave the flag without crossing any red lines. The rousing rhetoric needed a cushion of common sense, and Merkel provided it, showing she understood the concerns of immigration skeptics.

"What will change in Germany?" she wondered with them. "Do we even want change? What effect will other cultures have on us? Will this still be the Germany that we know?" There are just two ways to handle these doubts, Merkel said: Seize the chance to find out, or become closed to the world -- an impossibility in the 21st century. 

She could have left it at that but, with some influential party members calling for a cap on the number of refugees, Merkel had to show she aimed to achieve consensus, not overrule her opposition. "We want to significantly reduce the number of refugees," she said, arguing this would be for the good of Germany, given the difficulty of integrating so many people, and for the refugees themselves.

And, knowing full well she'd be quoted on it for years, she repeated her rejection of "Multikulti," a derogatory term for multiculturalism. "Whoever seeks refuge with us, must respect our laws and traditions and he must learn German," Merkel said. "Multikulti leads to parallel societies, and Multikulti thus means living a lie." Merkel's message to the newcomers is that those who fail to integrate won't be tolerated. This is perhaps a grim promise of future clashes and deportations, but it's also the inevitable flip side of "We can manage it."

Merkel doesn't want a legislative cap on immigration, but she does want a looser kind of cap. Europe's recent deal with Turkey, under which that country agreed to keep refugees from going northwest in exchange for $3 billion in aid, is one element of Merkel's proposed solution; mainly futile attempts to get other European countries to take more refugees is another.

Merkel has not suddenly turned leftist because of her stance on refugees. She is still a moderate right-winger and a technocrat. The "management" reference is not empty words even now. The federal migration office, BAMF, has made 240,058 asylum decisions in January through November, probably a world record -- twice as many as for all of 2014. At the same time, Germany is getting better at keeping out most of those immigrants who have little chance of gaining asylum -- namely Albanians, Kosovars and Serbs. Earlier this year, there were tens of thousands of them arriving each month as they hoped to take advantage of Germany's open-door policy for those fleeing war. In November, only 2,960 Albanians arrived, about half this year's average.

In parallel to these bureaucratic efforts, Merkel is also managing politically. Just two months ago, the CDU's ratings seemed to be dwindling dangerously. Recent polls show they have stabilized at 37 to 39 percent, a respectable support level just a few percentage points lower than the party's 2013 election result. At the same time, the growth of Alternative fuer Deutschland, the anti-immigrant party, has peaked at 10 percent, and most polls show it sliding below that tine. 

CDU members may have decided in advance of the speech to rally behind their leader: Her coalition partner and top political rival Sigmar Gabriel was only reelected as head of the Social Democratic Party by about three-quarters of the vote last week, and a show of CDU unity was in order. Yet Merkel's unusually powerful speech shows that she has come into her own as a politician. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote on Monday, "Merkel remains the only alternative to Merkel."

That, arguably, is more important than a Nobel.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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