BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that the migrant influx of 2015 led to deep divisions in Germany and renewed a promise on Wednesday that it won’t be repeated as she embarked on her fourth term.
Merkel was sworn in last week at the head of a coalition of Germany’s biggest parties, nearly six months after they lost significant support in an election. She told parliament she hopes that, at the end of her fourth term, “divisions and polarization (will) have been reduced, perhaps even overcome.”
“I want to do everything so that, at the end of this parliamentary term, people will say that ‘in Berlin they have learned something from the September 2017 election result,'” Merkel said. She set out promises such as achieving full employment by 2025 and strengthening the pension system.
The election, which came after four years in which Merkel’s conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats had an overwhelming majority, weakened the governing parties and saw the anti-migration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, enter parliament for the first time. It is now the biggest opposition party.
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Merkel acknowledged that the debate about migration and integration has “divided and polarized our country to this day.”
She said Wednesday that Germany, which allowed in more than 1 million migrants in 2015 and 2016, can be proud. But she added: “Of course, it’s also the case that this was an exceptional humanitarian situation. And such an exceptional situation should and must not be repeated.”
Merkel acknowledged, as she has before, that European nations were “naive” in the years before 2015 in failing to see migration pressure building up. But she was unapologetic about her response, arguing that the government has taken action to prevent a repeat.
She said a 2016 agreement with Turkey, aimed at curbing migrant arrivals and the activities of smugglers, has many opponents. But she said will “always defend it” and pointed to more difficult efforts to achieve similar agreements with Libya.
Merkel added that “never again must U.N. aid programs be as dramatically underfunded as two years ago,” noting that Germany has increased its funding.
The new government says the number of migrants shouldn’t exceed a range of 180,000-220,000 a year, a nod to conservatives in Merkel’s bloc including new Interior Minister Horst Seehofer — one of her most prominent critics in the migrant crisis.
Still, Merkel also used Wednesday’s speech to say that “Islam has now become a part of Germany,” contradicting comments last week by Seehofer.
“I know many people have a problem with accepting this thought, and they’re perfectly entitled to,” she said, but she added that the government has an obligation to strengthen and not weaken cohesion in German society.
Last year, Germany saw around 186,000 asylum-seekers arrive, significantly fewer than in 2016.
AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland countered that “mass immigration continues unchecked.”
In his reply to Merkel, he suggested that recent migrants were receiving benefits at the expense of low-income Germans.
Supporting eastern European leaders who have refused to take in migrants, he said that “there is no obligation to diversity … there is also no obligation to share my state with outsiders.”
David Rising contributed to this report.