New president urges Germans to stand by Europe

By Geir Moulson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 4:55 a.m. MDT

New German President Joachim Gauck, reflected in a glass board, delivers his speech after making the oath of office at the parliament in Berlin, Friday, March 23, 2012.

Markus Schreiber, Associated Press

BERLIN — Germany's new president urged his compatriots on Friday not to turn their backs on European unity amid the debt crisis and said he wants to help ensure that people of all origins feel at home in the country.

Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and East German pro-democracy activist with no party affiliation, was formally sworn in after a parliamentary assembly elected him by an overwhelming majority last weekend.

In an inaugural address to Parliament, the 72-year-old said it is important to "preserve (Germany's) 'yes to Europe.'"

"In times of crisis in particular, the inclination to take refuge at the level of the national state is particularly marked," Gauck said. "But European cooperation cannot be shaped without the life breath of solidarity."

The right answer to the crisis is "more Europe," he said, adding that a majority of Germans "continue to give this European idea a future."

Rescuing struggling eurozone nations has been unpopular in prosperous Germany, Europe's biggest economy. The country's president has little power over day-to-day political decisions, but the largely ceremonial post carries moral authority.

Gauck replaces Christian Wulff, who quit last month after less than two years office amid a scandal over favors he allegedly received from rich friends before becoming head of state in 2010.

During his tenure, Wulff who sought to advance the integration of ethnic minorities and declared that Islam "belongs to Germany." Gauck said that Wulff's push for "an inviting, open society" would be important to his own five-year term.

"In our country, all those who live here should be able to feel at home," he said.

"We would be ill-advised to close our eyes to real problems out of ignorance or false correctness," Gauck added. "But when it comes to living together, we must not be led by fears, resentments and negative projections."

He also stressed Germany's unity against "far-right despisers of democracy," declaring that "we will not give you the gift of our fear: you will be consigned to the past and our democracy will live."

Germany was shocked by revelations last year that a neo-Nazi group that evaded authorities' detection for a decade apparently killed eight people of Turkish origin, a Greek man and a policewoman over a seven-year period.

Gauck is united Germany's first head of state from the formerly communist east. For a decade after reunification, he oversaw the files of East Germany's detested secret police, the Stasi — helping easterners deal with the often painful process of confronting the truth about authorities' blanket surveillance of their lives.

His election as president demonstrates "the unstoppable progress of internal unity in our unified country," Parliament speaker Norbert Lammert said.

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