In line with German parliamentary procedure, the first general debate of this legislative period focused on the national budget. And in accordance with Bundestag tradition, first up at the speaker's podium was the largest opposition party, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), who weren't about to squander a chance to create a ruckus.
AfD joint parliamentary leader Alice Weidel accused the government of hiding €30 billion ($35.5 billion) Germany pays annually to the EU within the national financial plans.
"They talk about a balanced budget, but taxpayers are sitting on a mountain of debt," Weidel said. "They're throwing money out the window with both hands."
The AfD leader would go on to call for tax cuts for lower- and middle-income Germans, but not before fuming about Germany's immigration policies. To jeers and interjections from the other parties, Weidel said Germany had become a country of "unlimited immigration for unqualified workers."
"Burqas, girls in headscarves, knife-wielding men on government benefits and other good-for-nothing people are not going to ensure our prosperity, our economic growth and our social welfare system," Weidel said, concluding her speech with the words: "This country is being governed by idiots."
Weidel's extreme and often insulting language led Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble to officially call her to order, saying that her language had discriminated against "all headscarf-wearing women."
Merkel stays cool, ignores AfD, talks bees
If the AfD were hoping to provoke an angry reaction from Angela Merkel, they were sorely disappointed. Merkel didn't mention Weidel or the AfD at all in her more than 30-minute speech. Her implicit message: the populists' hateful attacks are not worthy of a response.
Instead, Merkel delved into the policy specifics of her government, speaking about everything from digitalization and incentives for the construction of private homes to financial transfers between Germany's national government and its sixteen federal states and the diversity of species and, specifically, bees.
Predictably, Merkel touted the fact that the proposed new German budget doesn't incur any new debt and that it foresees Germany again reducing its level of indebtedness to less than 60 percent, conforming to EU guidelines. Germany, she suggested, was leading the bloc by example.
"Our task is to strengthen the eurozone and make it resistant to crises," Merkel said, adding that individual member states needed to become more competitive globally.
A stronger Europe, a stronger Germany
Significantly, Merkel devoted much of her address to foreign policy and defense. She reiterated Germany's logic for joining France and the UK in preserving the Iran nuclear agreement over the opposition of the United States.
And she justified her budget's modest expansion of military expenditure, specifically citing Germany's responsibilities to help defend Poland's borders and the airspace of the Baltic nations — perhaps a nod to increasing fears of Russia in Eastern Europe. She restated her belief that Europe will need to take more responsibility for its own defense and its own external borders.
"It's not a question of starting an arms race," Merkel said, "but of equipping ourselves across the board."
Merkel also defended her sometimes controversial interior minister, Horst Seehofer, and so-called ANKER centers. The government hopes that the centralized facilities for accommodating and housing asylum seekers will speed up decisions on whether would-be migrants will be allowed to remain in Germany, allowing for quicker deportations.
It was the only point in her speech that Merkel touched upon the AfD's main issue. Weidel had tried to turn the Bundestag's open session into a verbal brawl about migrants. But Merkel returned it to the well-travelled channels of policy-oriented, parliamentary debate about the state of the nation as a whole.
A study in contrasts
The other opposition parties followed Merkel's lead — at least where the anti-immigration populists were concerned. The leader of the center-right Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner, took the AfD to task for not having put forward any plans of its own for financing Germany's social-welfare state. Otherwise, they concentrated their criticism on the government and not on the far-right nationalists. The FDP advocated tax relief, the Left Party criticized military expenditures and the Greens demanded more measures to protect the environment.
The approach to the AfD in the Bundestag seems to have shifted since the populists joined the parliament late last year. As recently as February, former Green leader Cem Özdemir held a much publicized speech lambasting segments of the populist party as racist. On Wednesday, May 16, the strategy was to withhold the attention the AfD seeks to generate by violating taboos in German parliamentary discourse.
The AfD's second speaker, Alexander Gauland, avoided the discriminatory discourse of his fellow parliamentary leader, Weidel. The 77-year-old former member of Merkel's conservative party addressed many of his critical remarks directly to the chancellor.
Unfortunately, for him, Merkel was no longer listening. As she sometimes does in the latter stages of Bundestag debates, the chancellor was taking the opportunity to confer with members of her cabinet. Her seat was glaringly empty.