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New "walls" now divide Germany, president says
October 3, 2017 / 12:00 PM / 20 days ago

New "walls" now divide Germany, president says

MAINZ, Germany (Reuters) - Germany’s Sept. 24 national election has shown the country is divided by new, less visible “walls”, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Tuesday, the anniversary of German reunification.

Police during German Unification Day celebrations in Mainz, Germany, October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Speaking 27 years after East and West Germany were reunited following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Steinmeier said the election, which saw the far-right enter parliament, had exposed “large and small cracks” in society and he called on democratic lawmakers to work together to fight any return to nationalism.

“On September 24th, it became clear that other walls have arisen, less visible, without barbed wire and death-strips, but walls that stand in the way of our common sense of ‘us’,” Steinmeier said in a speech in the western city of Mainz.

Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in office in the election, but the vote brought a far-right party into parliament for the first time in more than half a century. A fractured vote means she will have to govern with a far less stable coalition.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, said the reunification anniversary was “a day of joy”. Reunified Germany carried a responsibility to uphold freedom at home and abroad, she said.

“We know we cannot disconnect from what’s going on in the world. Rather, we must take care that globalisation is constructed humanely,” she added at celebrations in Mainz.

But Steinmeier, a centre-left Social Democrat who was foreign minister before taking up the largely ceremonial presidency role in March, said that Germany now has “walls between our living environments”.

He said these had sprung up “between city and country, online and offline, poor and rich, old and young - walls, from behind which people hardly understand anything of each other.”

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and wife Elke Buedenbender greet people during German Unification Day celebrations in Mainz, Germany, October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A poll on Monday showed nearly two-thirds of Germans still see divisions between those in the former communist East and the West, a sort of “Berlin Wall in the head”.

In Germany’s new parliament, comprising six party groups compared to four previously, “political culture will change”, Steinmeier said. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has vowed to “hunt” the new government, whatever its make-up.

Slideshow (3 Images)

REGULATING IMMIGRATION

The president urged lawmakers to show that “democrats have better solutions than those who abuse democracy”, and to never allow a return to nationalism. He said Germany needed a sense of “homeland” with a common, democratic, way forward.

A leading member of the AfD, Alexander Gauland, provoked outrage last month for saying that Germans should no longer be reproached with their Nazi past and should take pride in what their soldiers achieved during World War One and Two.

Steinmeier said Germany needed an honest discussion about immigration - the issue that fuelled the rise of the AfD after Merkel’s 2015 decision to leave German borders open to around 1 million refugees, mostly fleeing war in the Middle East.

He called for discussion about how much migration Germany wants, and needs, adding that this could mean new guidelines.

“In my view, this means not simply wishing away migration but ... defining legal admission to Germany, which regulates and controls migration by our stipulations,” he said.

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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