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Politics

How has Germany's president fared one year in?

Although the German president's role is mostly limited to ceremonial and supervisory duties, the position allows its holder to steer political and social debates. Joachim Gauck has tackled controversial issues head on.

Much time passed before Joachim Gauck held his first major speech as president of Germany. In February 2013 - 11 months after taking office - he invited some 200 guests to his official residence, the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, to talk about European cooperation. Germany has expected lofty oratory from its heads of state at least since a 1997 speech by Roman Herzog in which the former president memorably urged the country to go in new directions.

The current president spoke in no uncertain terms of a crisis of confidence in Europe, marked by "impatience, exhaustion and frustration among the people." He noted that the eurozone debt crisis combined with globalization had led to uncertainty over whether Europe was on the right path. The way ahead requires a new driving force, he said, "an identity-forging narrative that touches hearts and triggers constructive actions."

As a solution, he called for a renaissance of certain shared European values that have evolved over centuries, emphasizing tolerance, equality, solidarity, cooperation and altruism. This, according to the German president, requires a new sense of a European public, perhaps aided by measures like the creation of a pan-European television channel.

An appeal for European cooperation

Joachim Gauck makes his speech on European unity on February 22, 2013, at Bellevue Palace
Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa Pool +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Gauck held his first major speech in February

In promoting the idea of European unity, Gauck called for European citizens to actively take part in the process. "What are you contributing to this?" he often asked the audience. He prefers direct contact with people. During his February speech, many journalists were not allowed inside the room, as Gauck said he preferred to address individuals including ambassadors, organization representatives and young people. In addition, he invited many everyday citizens to the public reception in the gardens of Bellevue Palace - not just the elite of society. He seems unafraid of crowds and approaches others in a friendly, direct manner. His experience as a Lutheran pastor no doubt helps him in such interactions.

When it comes to the press, Gauck avoids making headlines with strong statements on German politics. His predecessor Christian Wulff made waves with his declaration that "Islam is part of Germany" - but Gauck has preferred more complex explanations over one-line slogans. At the same time, he uses the media to his advantage. This could be seen in his Christmas address, during which he looked directly into the camera and did not sit at a table or stand among others like some of his predecessors had done.

Not shy on controversial topics

The president is not afraid of speaking his mind, regardless of whom he is dealing with. He did not shy away from telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she should explain her approach to the euro bailout plan more clearly to the public. Then, despite pressure from the German government, he waited for a ruling from the German Constitutional Court before signing legislation that approved the country's participation in the eurozone's permanent financial bailout fund. He also stressed that politicians and authorities needed to do more to work through the ramifications of a series of neo-Nazi murders beginning in September 2000 that German police and intelligence authorities failed to connect for years.

Joachim Gauck (right) is welcomed by the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem
Photo: EPA/Lior Mizrahi / POOL +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Gauck's visit to Israel was well received by the public and the media

During his official visits abroad, he has underlined shared values as well as the common duty to address problems. He has visited all of Germany's neighboring countries, starting with Poland, where he praised "the Polish love of freedom." Due in part to his experiences in the former East Germany, Gauck sees freedom as essential for the development of civil society. In the Netherlands, he held a speech on an annual holiday celebrating liberation from Nazi rule, in which he said that because Germans have owned up to their guilt, liberation could be celebrated together.

Gauck's trip to Israel attracted widespread praise and media resonance. While there, he held unusually long talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu, calling upon Israel to give a sign that it might compromise and agree to stop settlement building. Gauck said he saw this as a key to reviving the Middle East peace process.

Focus on youth

At age 73, Gauck seems to take particular pleasure in meeting with young people. He listens to their questions carefully and tries to answer them as well as he can. He has expressed hope in younger generations - people who have not directly experienced the Nazi or the East German dictatorships. In their everyday lives, he says he can see the changes that his home country has undergone.

"It's self-evident to you that your Germany is a country with people of different backgrounds and religions," he said at the Young Islam Conference, adding that integration was already happening through young people's shared everyday experiences alone. Different identities were not being suppressed - instead, their presence was leading to a transformation of all identities.

Gauck's approach has met with approval in Germany. According to surveys, three out of four Germans are satisfied with his performance. Only 10 percent were critical of the president. These statistics have hardly changed in the year since he assumed office. It seems that Gauck has not made many mistakes so far, although he's also far from a political star.

DW.DE