Rueful Merkel takes blame for Berlin defeat

September 19, 2016 8:02 AM EDT

German Chancellor and chairwomen of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin, Germany, September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


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By Paul Carrel and Michelle Martin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday she would turn back time if she could to better prepare Germany for last year's migrant influx, striking a conciliatory tone and taking some blame for her party's drubbing in a Berlin city vote on Sunday.

Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) suffered their second electoral blow in two weeks in Sunday's vote in the capital, slumping to their lowest level since 1990 in the state election in which voters rejected her open-door refugee policy.

"I take my share of the responsibility that lies with me as party chairwoman and chancellor," said Merkel, sounding the most conciliatory she has in more than a decade in office in a shift away from a previously robust defense of her migrant policy.

In prepared remarks, the 62-year-old chancellor said she would do things differently if she could go back again and prepare better to cope with the influx of around one million migrants who flooded into Germany last year, many of them fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

"If I could, I would turn back the time by many, many years," Merkel said, sounding particularly somber.

A backlash against her migrant policy has raised questions about whether Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader, will seek a fourth term next year. Given a dearth of options in her party, however, she is still the most likely candidate.

Asked whether she will run again in 2017, Merkel smiled and declined to comment. She said she was still motivated.

Rather than repeat her mantra of "Wir schaffen das", or "we can do this", on the migrant crisis, Merkel said she did not like using the catchphrase anymore.

"Some people feel provoked by this sentence and that was never the aim," she added, sounding almost apologetic.

Merkel's deepening woes at home are eroding her influence beyond German borders, where she failed to impose herself at a European Union summit in Bratislava last Friday.

MEA CULPA

Conceding that "God knows, we have not done everything right", the chancellor added: "We - including me - now need to surpass ourselves, so to speak."

The CDU won 17.6 percent in Berlin, down from 23.3 percent in the last election in Berlin in 2011.

The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which with 14 percent of the vote will enter its 10th of the country's 16 regional assemblies, said it would target a double digit score in next year's national vote after the "terrific" Berlin result.

Commenting on a recent poll showing 82 percent of voters wanted a change in her migrant policy, Merkel said: "If I knew what change in policy people wanted, I would be ready to consider it and to talk about it."

"But the poll does not give any advice on that."

A year before the national election, the Berlin result has deepened rifts in her conservative camp, with her CDU and their Bavarian allies -- the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- blaming each other within minutes of Sunday's results.

The CSU wants to cap the number of migrants coming into Germany at 200,000 a year. Merkel has so far rejected such a ceiling, instead seeking a Europe-wide solution to the issue.

But she sounded ready to compromise with the CSU, saying that if the wish of the German people was for the country not to be swamped with uncontrolled migration "then that is exactly what I am fighting for".

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, speaking minutes after Merkel, said people did not want to hear backward-looking apologies.

"Justifications of the past do not help. We need answers for the future now and for the coming years, that's what people are waiting for," he said.

If the CDU and CSU can agree a credible migrant policy, Seehofer added, "we still have every chance of winning the federal election well".

(Reporting by Paul Carrel and Michelle Martin; Editing by Noah Barkin and Gareth Jones)



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