Merkel speaks out against Turkey and Russia in assertive speech on her return to parliament

A weakened Angela Merkel sought to reclaim her place on the world stage on Wednesday as she spoke out against Russian and Turkish aggression and warned President Donald Trump against protectionism. 

Mrs Merkel tried to put damaging election losses and months of difficult coalition negotiations behind her as she set out her new government’s programme to the German parliament.

She defended her controversial refugee policy and said it was time for Germany and Europe to do more to solve the crisis “on the EU’s doorstep” in Syria.

“We have been too half-hearted for too long,” she said, as she spoke out against “the gruesome acts of the Assad regime in eastern Ghouta while Russia looks on”.

She condemned the Turkish military offensive in Syria “in the strongest possible terms”, adding: “For all Turkey’s legitimate security interests, what has happened in Afrin, where thousands and thousands of civilians are persecuted, killed or forced to flee, is unacceptable. This too we condemn in the strongest terms.”

On the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, she said: “I wish I did not have to name Russia today, but we cannot ignore the evidence”.

Germany “stands side by side with Britain” over the poisoning, she said, but she had a harsher message on Brexit. “The relationship with Britain will not be as close as it is today after Brexit,” she said. “That’s why we need a detailed trade deal with Britain.”

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She had tough words too for Mr Trump., theatening an EU trade war if the US presses ahead with plans to impose protectionist tariffs on European imports. “We will talk intensively with the US, but if necessary we are also ready for unmistakable countermeasures,” she said.

She made a passionate defence of the EU. In future no single European country will account for more than 1 per cent of the world’s population, she said. “Our future lies in a united Europe,” she said. “Only together can we achieve lasting peace and prosperity.”

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It was a defiant performance from a German chancellor many are writing off as irretrievably damaged by her election losses and the months of difficulty in forming a new government, and in her waning years of power.

She did not avoid mention of her “open-door” refugee policy, as she often did on last year’s campaign trail. Instead she made it the centrepiece of her speech, insisting she had acted to avert a humanitarian crisis.

“The vast majority of the people who came to us couldn’t help the fact that the international community had abandoned them. We took them in as a humanitarian gesture. But it can never be allowed to happen again,” she said.

“It was an incredible test of our country. None of our structures were properly prepared for this task, yet we largely accomplished it.”

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She accepted mistakes had been made, but insisted they were in allowing the Syrian refugee crisis to spiral out of control before her 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders.

She waded into the row over the role of Islam in German society, and slapped down her new interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who claimed last week that “Islam does not belong in Germany”.

“There is no doubt the history of our country is Christian and Jewish, but it also true that Islam has now become a part of Germany,” she said as Mr Seehofer looked on.

She acknowledged her losses in last year’s elections and the difficult negotiations to form a new coalition, describing them as a sign “something has changed in our country”. 

“I want to do everything to ensure that at the end of this legislature people say: in Berlin they learned from the election results of September 2017,” she said.

For the first time it fell to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to respond as the main opposition in parliament.

Alexander Gauland, the AfD leader, accused Mrs Merkel of lacking empathy and vision.”There is no obligation to diversity and colorfulness,” he said. “There is no obligation to share your own country with strangers."

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