News Digest 6th March

Corona virus

On Monday, it was confirmed that 10 of Germany’s 16 states now had cases of the virus, totalling around 130 in all. Some large public gatherings, including international trade fairs, were cancelled or delayed, as were some flights. People started to stock up on longlife foods and other products such as toilet paper, meaning that shelves were empty in many supermarkets. More people were put in quarantine, including over 50 from one town in Hesse.

As in the UK, there were criticisms that the government had reacted too slowly. Health Minister Jens Spahn responded in the Welt am Sonntag that the government had taken the virus seriously from the beginning. He was concerned, however, that protective items and medication was a big theme for doctors and that hospitals and doctors were too dependent on products from around the world, including China.

By Wednesday, 240 cases had been confirmed as Jens Spahn spoke of a worldwide pandemic which has not reached its peak in Germany, and warned that restrictions on daily life were to be expected. The government announced a ban on the export of face masks and other protective materials.

By Friday, the Robert Koch Institute, the public body responsible for the safeguarding of public health in Germany, had reported 534 cases nationwide, with all states except Saxony-Anhalt being affected.

Despite OECD warnings that worldwide growth could be halved as a result of the virus, the atmosphere in Berlin was relatively calm, with the Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier (CDU) saying that Germany “has a very resilient economy”, and that there had been limited impact on the supply chain so far. However the Tagesschau reported that, should the worldwide situation deteriorate, the OECD estimated that Germany could only expect growth of 0.3 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in 2019. Other news outlets also reported concern, with an NDR article arguing that “bad news from companies has been coming in every hour in the past few days” with disrupted supply chains from China, Germany’s most important trading partner, Zeit warning that there could be a severe recession and Focus that, “In our view, the danger of a global pandemic with fatal consequences for the globalized global economy is still completely underestimated.”

Thuringia

The political crisis in Thuringia seemed to have reached a resolution on Wednesday, with the election of Left party leader Bodo Ramelow as Minister President. This means that the planned minority coalition, composed of the Left Party, SPD and Greens, can now start its work and carry through important measures such as the budget, as well as plan for a new election in April next year.

The election was not a smooth run for Ramelow: on Monday, Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD in Thuringia announced that he would stand against Ramelow. Ramelow did not get an absolute majority in the first two rounds, but won 42 out of 85 in the third round (which only required a simple majority), after Höcke withdrew tactically. According to Zeit, the reason for Höcke’s withdrawal was that the AfD wanted it to be clear whether CDU members had voted no or abstained, since the abstentions could pave the way for a legal challenge under the new law for electing the Minister President. In stormy scenes afterwards, Ramelow refused to shake Höcke’s hand and gave a speech in which he accused the AfD of trampling on democracy, saying “There are arsonists in this room.” The immediate crisis may have been resolved, but it does not look as if Thuringian politics will quieten down in the coming months

CDU leadership

Against the background of the CDU leadership election, the ZDF Political Barometer showed that the CDU/CSU Union had reached a record low, with only 26% saying they would vote CDU/CSU if there was an election this Sunday. The SPD increased slightly to 16%, the Greens continue to be in second place with 23%, and the Left Party have around 8% meaning that a Green-SPD-Left Party coalition would be the likely result on an election. The AfD remain on about 14%.

The Barometer also found that Merz was the frontrunner amongst all respondents, just ahead of Laschet, with Röttgen lagging far behind – but the biggest number of respondents – 30% – didn’t care. Amongst CDU supporters, Merz is well ahead of Laschet.

The CDU announced that the three candidates would be taking part in internet discussions, and answering questions from members. There will be one live panel discussion and two “digital town halls.” Stern reported that Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, the CDU headquarters, had also announced that there were 10 further candidates for the position, who had not yet been nominated.

Dealing with the far-right

Chancellor Angela Merkel  said on Monday that the country’s fight against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia was the government’s “deepest concern,” as ministers met with leaders of migrant groups to discuss ways in which they could be protected. The Bundestag debated right wing terrorism and hate on Thursday, and there was was minute of silence to commemorate the victims of the Hanau shootings.

Former CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said that Germany had underestimated the threat from right wing extremism for too long and that the country must do more to tackle the problem, and Islamophobia.

For the SPD, Chairman Rolf Mützenich said that the Hanua shootings were mass murder – “it was racist, right wing terrorism,” which he accused the AfD of being complicit with. He quoted speeches by Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland, AfD parliamentary leaders, in which they used racist language and diminished the Holocaust, and demanded that they apologise: “You have prepared the ground. You are guilty.”

Criticism of the AfD was widespread. The Nordkurier reported that the SPD Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommerania, Manuela Schwesig, had re-asserted the non-cooperation policy with the AfD and criticised the CDU for not having a clear enough position in the fight against right-wing extremism. She said that, “Verbal ammunition often ends in physical violence” and called for monitoring of the AfD. In an interview with Focus, CDU leadership candidate Merz also reiterated the no cooperation policy, saying that he had told CDU members in Thuringia that they had a responsibility that extends beyond the Thuringian border.

The Tagesspiegel reported an intervention by former President Joachim Gauck, who called for some tolerance in dealing with the AfD and warned against labelling all AfD supporters as fascist. His comments were criticised from all sides.

In the wake of the accusations, AfD leaders Jörg Meuthen and Tino Chrupulla, wrote an open letter in which they stated that “anyone who makes racist and contemptuous statements about foreigners and foreign cultures is acting dishonestly and indecently and thus against Germany and against the AfD.” As the Frankfurter Allgemeine pointed out, if the party wants to take action against members who are racist, indecent or contemptuous against foreigners, they have a long list to work through. The paper went on to list around forty statements made by AfD members, many of whom are AfD leaders, which are breathtakingly shocking. The statement, “Germany for the Germans” was one of the least offensive; others included comments celebrating the drowning of refugees; advocating giving refugees a ‘one-way ticket to Auschwitz-Birkenau or advocating another Holocaust; “A nation can only maintain its own unity and freedom if it remains largely homogeneous”; and “Islam is a totalitarian and fascist ideology that has no place in our country.”

Meanwhile the Zeit reported that the Greens have called for more rights for migrants and a fund to help victims of right-wing violence. Their proposals include the establishment of a “virtual police station”, where online criminal charges against hate online can be filed, a relief fund and a central hotline are intended to help people who are threatened or affected by right-wing violence.

On Tuesday, it was reported that the Military Counterintelligence Service has classified 14 member of the armed forces as extremist, eight of whom were right-extremists.

The Deutsche Welle has a useful timeline of recent right-extremist activity in Germany, which can be read here.

Tensions on the Greek-Turkish border

Tensions on the Greek-Turkish border intensified following an increase in the numbers fleeing civil war in Syria.

On Wednesday, the Bundestag rejected a motion by the Green party to admit 5,000 children from Greek refugee camps, with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, saying that Germany would only take in refugees as part of a European initiative. In a Bundestag debate on Thursday, there was criticism of Turkey, with accusations that the regime was using refugees to blackmail Europe. SPD, Green, Left Party and FDP members argued that refugees should be admitted to Germany. CDU/CSU and AfD members insisted on compliance with the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement, which states that Turkey should prevent illegal migration to the EU.

On Friday, the mayors of seven German cities as well as the  Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, Boris Pistorius, called on the government to accept minors from the refugee camps.

Earlier in the week, current CDU leader, and Defence Secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had called for more pressure on Russia and Syrian President Assad to end the war, while CDU leadership contender Röttgen called for understanding for Turkey’s position. The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that he had said that Turkey’s actions should be seen as a call for help rather than a threat and the Zeit that both he and Merz had appealed for help for Turkey in order to persuade it to close its borders again and to prevent the movement of refugees seen in 2015/2016.

The Spiegel reported that the increasing numbers of refugees has raised concerned about a new refugee crisis and provided political parties with a problem: immigration and asylum, which had dropped down the political agenda, could now come back to the top again.

CDU Contender Friedrich Merz was clear about his position on refugees. As the Tagesspiegel reported, he delivered a message to refugees on Monday on TV. “We cannot take you here!”

Germany’s human rights commissioner Bärbel Kofler said on Friday that it was shameful that EU states had so far failed to develop an asylum system that works and demanded quick help for refugees in need of protection.

An excellent summary of the refugee crisis and Germany’s policy can be found on the Deutsche Welle site.

This week in Berlin

Both the new immigration law aiming at making it easier for skilled workers to come to Germany and the new law making it mandatory to have a measles vaccination in order to attend kindergarten or school came into force this week.

In elections to Bundestag committees, the other parties once again rejected AfD candidates for seven committees. The AfD regularly proposes provocative candidates for committees, and has also had its candidates for Vice President of the Bundestag (each party can nominate one) rejected numerous times.

In the run-up to International Women’s Day on 8th March, the SPD Minister for Family Affairs, Franziska Giffey, announced the launch of a national equality strategy which will include a cross-departmental approach, which is currently lacking. The Tagesspiegel reported that the aim is to reduce the current wage gap of over 20 percent between women and men, which rises to over 50 percent for pensions. All ministries will be required consider the gender equality strategy when developing legislation and implementing funding programmes. Giffey also called for introduction of a quota for women in the boardrooms of large companies. For his part, Friedrich Merz asserted in an interview with Focus that CDU candidate lists for elections should not be equally composed of men and women, although only 20% of CDU MPS are women. He regards that as ‘discrimination against men’ and argued that the CDU has proved that women make it to the top without quotas.

The Berliner Zeitung reported that the planned construction of extra rooms for the Bundestag, which currently has a space problem, was becoming more and more expensive. The paper wrote that the provision of the extra rooms will cost around 70 million euros. The reason space is so limited is due to the German electoral system, which adjusts the amount of seats according to the ‘overhang’ and ‘balance’ mandates. In elections, people have two votes: the first is a direct vote for an individual to be the constituency MP, and the second is a proportional representation vote for a party. Over­hang mandates occur when the number of constituency seats won by a party in a state exceeds the number of seats to which it would be entitled on the strength of the second vote and balance mandates make sure that the distribution of seats accurately reflects the proportional distribution of the second votes. The current parliament, which has 709 members, is the largest ever; and the next could be even larger.

What’s coming up

9th – 13th March

Next sitting week for Parliament. Topics include questions to the government, the first consultation on a draft law to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime, and participation of German forces in Darfur and South Sudan

The Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house of parliament which represents the 16 states, will debate six laws from the Bundestag next week, including the extension of the rent brake, which aims to guarantee fair rents, and fair competition amongst health insurance companies.

Bundesrat Committees will debate initiative coming from the German states, including proposals to oblige social network companies to provide information, wage subsidies for the long-term unemployed and changes to the law to phase-out coal.

25th April

CDU leadership election

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