Merkel Flips on Burqa Ban, Calls for 'Ban Wherever Legally Possible'

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is featured as Time's Person of the Year, December 9, 2015.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is featured as Time's Person of the Year, December 9, 2015.Credit: AP

Angela Merkel laid out her case for a fourth term as German chancellor on Tuesday, presenting herself as a guarantor of stability in a world unsettled by the forces of globalisation, war and the election of Donald Trump.

Speaking to 1,000 members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union in Essen, the western rust belt city where she won the party leadership 16 years ago, Merkel defended her record while admitting that many people felt the world was "going off the rails." In a dramatic policy shift, Merkel stated she backs a partial ban on the burqa in Germany. This comes as her government is receiving criticism for its open door policy towards Syrian refugess. 

Almost exactly one year ago, Merkel's conservatives called for an effective ban on the burqa, saying the full body covering worn by some Muslim women should not be worn in public.

Neighbouring France adopted a "burqa ban" in 2011 but Germany has resisted such a step, and Merkel has stopped short of calling for a legal ban until now.

Merkel's decision to welcome nearly 900,000 migrants to Germany last year hit her popularity, triggered a damaging fight with her Bavarian allies and led to a surge in support for the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD). It is expected to win its first seats in the federal parliament next year.

"2016 did not bring more calm and stability. On the contrary," Merkel said in a speech that lasted an hour and a quarter and was followed by 11 minutes of applause.

"We are faced with a world, especially after the U.S. election, that needs to re-order itself, with regard to NATO and the relationship with Russia."

Europe's most powerful leader announced in November that she would seek a fourth term next autumn. Only two post-war chancellors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, have achieved a similar feat.

The pastor's daughter from communist East Germany will be running at a time when Europe is navigating its deepest set of crises since World War Two.

Britons voted for Brexit in June, while Trump has questioned the relevance of the post-war transatlantic alliance and sent conciliatory signals to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The brutal war in Syria has led hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Europe.

Populist threat

The AfD is one of many populist parties across Europe that are challenging the political establishment and threatening the liberal democratic values that have shaped the West since World War Two. Merkel has been described in the media in recent weeks as the last guardian of those values.

She began her speech with a promise not to allow a repetition of last year's migrant influx, drawing cheers from the crowd in the vast conference hall. Senior party members sat behind her on the stage, beneath the words "Our Values. Our Future".

Merkel called the bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo a "disgrace" and warned Britain there would be no "cherry picking" in its Brexit talks. She made a case for free trade and won applause when she talked about slashing German unemployment.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's defeat in a referendum on Sunday and the impending departure of French President Francois Hollande have underlined Merkel's status as Europe's most experienced leader.

When she came into office in 2005, George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac was in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair was British prime minister.

An Emnid poll on Sunday showed support for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union at a 10-month high of 37 percent, 15 points ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats.

But Merkel acknowledged that next year's election campaign would be like none she has waged before, taking place against a backdrop of a polarised society, threats from the far-right and the possibility of a "Red-Red-Green" coalition of the SPD, far-left Linke, and the Greens.

"It is our job to be so strong as to prevent that," Merkel told the conference. "The 2017 election for the Bundestag will be difficult like no previous election - at least since German reunification.

"You must help me".