Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat [CDU] candidate for chancellor, apologised on Saturday, after he was filmed laughing during a visit to storm-ravaged western Germany where dozens have lost their lives.

As German federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed crowds in North Rhine-Westphalia [NRW] and expressed his condolences to  victims of the storm, Mr Laschet could clearly be seen standing in the background, laughing at what appeared to be a private joke with colleagues.

The short clip was met with heavy criticism after it circulated widely on social media on Saturday evening. "I’m really speechless," Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of Germany’s Social Democrat Party [SPD], said on social media.

Mr Laschet issued a swift apology. "This was inappropriate and I’m sorry," he wrote on Twitter. "The fate of those affected is close to our hearts."

The flooding in Germany comes at a politically sensitive time as the country is due to head to the polls to elect a new government in September. 

The CDU has faced some criticism for vague policies on climate change in its manifesto and in early May was briefly overtaken by the Greens as the most popular party in opinion polls. 

The situation remains tense in Germany, after catastrophic flooding devastated large parts of Western Europe this week. The death toll across Europe has risen to more than 180 people, with 156 confirmed dead in Germany alone on Sunday morning.

Hundreds remain missing, with phone and power lines cut off in many areas. Emergency services, soldiers, and volunteers continue to search for loved ones, and divers have been sent in to search submerged homes and vehicles. Many people have been left without access to electricity or clean drinking water.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited areas particularly badly damaged on Sunday, to survey the damage and meet survivors. Ms Merkel, wearing hiking boots and giving fist-bumps to rescue workers, visited the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state. It is one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany, where the swollen Ahr river swept away houses and left debris piled high in the streets.

Cars are seen floating in a flooded street on July 15, 2021 in Valkenburg, Netherlands.

Credit: Getty/Getty

Concern has also turned to Southern Germany, where heavy rainfall overnight on Saturday led rivers and creeks to burst their banks and basements to flood with water. In Saxon Switzerland and the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, torrential rain led to flooding and mudslides and people have been urged to avoid going down into their basements.

In Austria, emergency workers in the Salzburg and Tyrol regions were on high alert for flooding, and the historic town centre of Hallein was under water.

The Bavarian district of Berchtesgadener Land also declared a disaster on Saturday, after the area experienced severe flooding and one person died. Hundreds of helpers were on Sunday working to further evacuate houses and bring people to safety. Markus Söder (CDU), the state’s prime minister, planned a visit on Sunday afternoon.

Water levels in rivers in the Passau district of Bavaria continued to rise on Sunday, leading police to tow away cars parked by the Danube river as a precaution. "If we don’t tow them away, they’ll drift as far as Austria," a police spokesperson said.

The full cost of the disaster is not known yet, but is expected to reach several billion euros. German federal finance minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) has announced emergency aid of more than 300 million euros for victims.

A low-pressure vortex circling over Europe and hemmed in by other weather fronts is said to have triggered the catastrophic flooding in Germany and neighbouring countries. Extreme weather events are hitting Europe more frequently as climate change warms the continent, experts agree.