BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Monday for a stronger "political union" in Europe to overcome the bloc's debt crisis, which she described as "maybe Europe's most difficult hours since World War II."
As leaders move ahead in uncharted territory, a breakthrough will be achieved not by "less Europe, but more," she told members of her conservative party gathered for their annual convention in the eastern German city of Leipzig.
The European Union's treaties must be overhauled to create a tighter political union, including measures to force countries in violation of fiscal discipline rules to face tough and automatic sanctions, even possibly hauling them to the European Court of Justice, Merkel said.
"We must develop the European Union's structure further. That does not mean less Europe, but more. That means creating a Europe that ensures that the euro has a future," she said in unusually passionate comments. "Our generation's duty now is to finalize the economic and currency union to form, step by step, a political union."
Structural changes to the EU as championed by Merkel would require the bloc's treaties to be amended which is a lengthy procedure that has in the past sometimes taken years, with all of the bloc's 27 governments, parliaments or, in some cases, voters in a referendum having to approve the changes.
The leader of Europe's biggest economy said the crisis led people across the continent to realize that the problems of any state within the 17-nation eurozone today are also the problems of all other members.
"Our responsibility no longer stops at our countries' borders," Merkel insisted.
Internationally, she has often been criticized for moving too slowly and reluctantly in tackling Europe's debt crisis. Within her Christian Democratic Union, however, the opposite appears to be true as she is facing rising criticism in the wake of costly bailouts of Greece and other debt-swamped member nations.
The chancellor therefore stressed that Germany depends on the EU as its main trading partner, and insisted that the country can only wield global influence as a leading European nation. Germany, a country of 82 million, is the world's fourth-largest economy.
"Alone, with just more than 1 percent of the world's population, we won't achieve much," she said.
"The euro is more than a currency. It is the symbol of Europe's unification. It is the symbol for half a century of freedom and peace," Merkel said. "Now we have to make sure that Europe will emerge strengthened from this crisis."
Merkel, who does not stand for re-election as the Christian Democratic Union's chairwoman until next year, also defended a series of political decisions that have been criticized by many party members, including abandoning conscription and speeding up the country's exit from nuclear power.
The party must remain faithful to its core values, but must always find modern answers to new challenges such as Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, Merkel said. "The world has changed through Fukushima," she said.
Merkel's government ordered seven older nuclear power plants to be shut permanently within weeks of Japan's March, 11 nuclear disaster, and decided to speed up abandoning nuclear power altogether by 2022.
But the party was eager to break with yet another decades-old taboo and voted in favor of a motion that calls on the government to introduce a national minimum wage.
The absence of a minimum wage makes Germany an exception among the world's leading economies. Unions and employers in the country's leading industries have traditionally hammered out collective bargaining agreements, but many professions are no longer covered by those.Comment on this story
The minimum wage is meant to only affect those not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and the actual wage is to be set by employers and unions, not by the government, according to the motion.
The more than 1,000 party delegates debated European policies for several hours Monday amid mounting criticism of the government's handling of the debt crisis, but several critical motions that could have reshaped Merkel's policies and irked partners in other European capitals were either voted down or postponed.
One proposal called for large economies to be given a bigger say on the European Central Bank's governing council, which would give Germany the greatest voting power.
But the motion was withdrawn from a vote and referred to a high-ranking party committee for further discussion, which was "dear to our chancellor," lawmaker Peter Hintze said. The issue requires a certain "sensibility" in order not to affront other European capitals amid the ongoing debate about the required changes to the EU's treaties, he added.