News Digest 13th March

Corona virus

Concern about the virus accelerated this week, with the government moving into the delay phase of response. On the same day that WHO declared a worldwide pandemic, Chancellor Merkel announced that 60%-70% of the German population could get the virus. By Friday, the number of confirmed cases had hit 3,000, with thousands more expected to come. By the end of the week, announcements about school closures and cancellations of events were coming thick and fast, some of which overturned statements made days or hours before.

Photo. NIAID / CC BY

Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Sunday that events with more than 1,000 people should be cancelled. However, in Germany it is the state governments, not the federal government, which makes such decisions, including on whether to close schools. So the week’s news unfolded with many announcements.

By Monday evening, over 1,150 cases had been reported (480 in hotspot North Rhine Westphalia), and the first two deaths, of a 78 year old and an 89 year old, were announced (by Friday, 6 deaths and. been reported). Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against false hopes, and made it clear that the virus will spread further; and so the aim is to slow it down. Government policy moved into the delay phase – to avoid too much strain on the health system at once, especially in the middle of the flu season, since one in five people will need intensive hospital treatment. Additionally, slowing down the spread could have the advantages that new medication to treat the virus may become available and that it may not be able to survive so well in hot weather.

On Tuesday, the government pledged 1 billion to help tackle the outbreak and Angela Merkel said that all non-essential events should be cancelled, a request she repeated again in a press conference on Thursday: social contact is to be minimised as far as possible. On Tuesday, Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia and Bremen were the first states to announce they were banning all meetings of over 1,000 people. It was announced that some football matches would be ‘ghost games’ played to empty stadiums (a local derby in NRW was the first) and many flights to Italy were cancelled. By Wednesday, the Berlin state government, which only hours earlier had announced it would not be banning large events, was forced into a ban following heavy criticism from many quarters, including the national government.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Angela Merkel said that she expects millions of people to be infected in Germany: 60 to 70 percent of the population could be infected. Therefore, it is important not to overload the healthcare system and important and right to cancel major events, especially to protect vulnerable groups such as the elderly. She emphasised again that it was essential to win time by slowing the spread of the virus down. Health Minister Jens Spahn stressed that people must be prepared to forgo private events, such as football matches.

As the Zeit commented in an article entitled ‘The Crisis Chancellor is back,’ Merkel emphasised several times on Wednesday that the government would “do what is necessary, together and in a European network.” The Zeit commented that Merkel’s measured presence “makes it clear that she is still the country’s top crisis manager.”

Concerns about the effect on the economy increased. In an interview with the Tagesspiegel on Saturday, Reiner Hoffmann, the head of the German Trade Union Confederation, the DGB, called for government action to limit the impact on the labour market and to avoid unemployment; for example short-term workers may be amongst the hardest hit. He was also concerned that the health system will not be able to cope and argued that there is a shortfall in nursing staff alone of 30,000.

On Monday, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz announced that the government will release 12.4 billion of state investment to help companies through problems caused by the spread of the virus. The FT reported this aid will provide liquidity support to companies and expand access to a government-subsidised short-term work scheme.  By Friday, Scholz had promised ‘unlimited credit programmes’ for businesses – half a trillion euros could be made available through an increased guarantee framework at the State Bank KfW. Scholz said, “There is no upper limit on the loan amount that KfW can grant….We are putting put all weapons on the table.”

The Education Minister, Anja Karliczek, said on Thursday that there was no need to close schools, as Denmark and Italy have done. However, she told state ministers to prepare for closures and delivery of lessons by other means. By Friday, plans to close schools in many states next week were in place. Berlin also announced it would shut bars and clubs and reduce public transport.

On Friday, Angela Merkel met with union and employer representatives to discuss further measures to tackle the crisis. Deutsche Bahn said it will stop running a direct train service to Italy. The Bundesliga announced that first and second division soccer matches would be suspended from Tuesday until April 2.

Meanwhile, the Tagesspiegel reported that right-populists and right-extremists were using the virus as an excuse to whip up anti-immigrant hatred, and conflating the refugee crisis with the spread of the virus.

Right-extremism and the AfD

On Thursday, the same day as the Bundestag debated a draft law on right-wing extremism and hate crime, it was announced that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz – BfV) had put the Flügel, which is the extreme wing of the far-right party the AfD, under observation. The Spiegel reported that the head of the BfV, Thomas Haldenwang, declared both Flügel leader, Björn Höcke, leader of the party in Thuringia, and Andreas Kalbitz, leader of the AfD in Brandenburg, to be right-wing extremists. He warned that democracies can fail if they are destroyed from within by their opponents.

Putting the Flügel under observation is an extremely serious move which means that the Flügel is suspected of right-extremist, anti-constitutional activity and clears the way for surveillance by the security services. The Flügel currently has around 7,00 members – 20% of the AfD membership – and before the BfV announcement in March 2020, was already classified as a ‘suspected case’ of right-wing extremism due to the “ethno-nationalist ideology” of Höcke, Kalbitz and their  colleagues.   The Zeit reported that Björn Höcke has rejected accusations of being anti-constitutional.

The Bundestag debated the draft law on right-wing extremism and hate for the first time on Thursday. A central plank of the law is an obligation on providers of social networks to report hate crimes to the Federal police. One part of the package of measures relates specifically to people in the public eye, who have received an increase in hate and threats.

Refugees

On Saturday, thousands of people demonstrated in Berlin and Hamburg in favour of taking in refugees from the Greek-Turkish border. The Tagesschau quoted one of the organisers of the Hamburg demonstration calling for further action from citizens in Germany, “If Europe closes its borders and state violence against refugees escalates, then everyone who stands for solidarity and the right to asylum must take to the streets.” In Berlin, demonstrators had placards proclaiming “We have space!”

This is a thorny issue, since Angela Merkel’s opening of the German borders in the autumn of 2015 has been both a source of pride and a source of problems in Germany. While many supported the move, the influx of 1.5 million refugees has also stoked the fire of right.wing populism, and contributed to the rise of the AfD.

On Sunday, SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans appealed to the EU to get around 1,000 unaccompanied children out of the refugee camps quickly, saying that Germany must act if there is not a quick solution. The FDP also supported the admission of children from refugee camps, and called for a renewed EU-Turkey refugee agreement. On Monday, the government announced that it would organise a ‘coalition of the willing’ to take refugee children who are either unaccompanied or in need of medical attention: Germany is willing to take its “appropriate share” and hopes that other EU countries will join the coalition.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned Turkey that additional funding for refugees could be dependent on Turkey adhering to EU agreements (Turkey is currently breaking the 2016 refugee pact which requires Turkey to prevent illegal migration to the EU) and Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Turkey’s unwillingness to adhere to the 2016 agreement was ‘completely unacceptable.’ On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Erdogan announced that he will hold a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and French President Emmanuel Macron next week, on 17th March in Istanbul.

There has been strong criticism in Germany that the EU does not appear to have a plan for tackling the crisis: CDU leadership contender Röttgen, for example, accused the EU of having no strategic position.

The AfD secured a debate on Thursday entitled ‘Secure Borders’. The party called on the government to make clear to the Turkish government that Germany views its opening of the border as an ‘aggressive and hostile act and will respond accordingly’. No attempts at illegal entry in Germany should be permitted to deter illegal migrants from continuing their trip to Germany’.In addition, the party wants to refrain from any other measure and explanation that could be seen as an incentive to try illegal immigration to Europe and especially Germany.

SPD leadership

On Thursday, it was reported that neither of the SPD leaders, Saksia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, is considering standing as Chancellor candidate for the 2021 election. This leaves the field open for a candidature by Olaf Scholz – currently the third most popular politician in Germany – who was defeated by Esken and Walter-Borjans in his bid to become leader in December.

Homeless EU citizens

A report seen by the Frankfurter Rundschau highlighted the issue of homeless EU citizens in Frankfurt am Main – a report the paper said had been supressed by the authorities. It described a group of homeless EU citizens from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Italy, Hungary and Latvia who were unable to access benefits while looking for a job, and the existence of wooden shack camps in the city.

Opinon polls

In the light of opinion polls last week showing the the CDU/CSU Union has reached a historic low, the Zeit analysed a future government possibility: a green-red-red (Green Party, SPD, Left Party) coalition. Although the SPD and Linke (Left) parties are showing a willingness to discuss coalition with each other, even meeting to discuss policy commonalities, the paper reports that the Green Party was not present. This, despite the fact that the Green Part are in a strong second place position in the polls and despite the fact, that as Zeit points out, the Green preference may be coalition with the CDU. In states where they are in coalition with the CDU or FDP, such as Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein, they are performing particularly strongly in the polls. Whether the Green would want to rule with the left-moving SPD or anti-capitalist Left Party is an open question.

Brexit

President of the European Commission and former German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the UK must consider the trade-offs it will make in any trade deal: “So it will be important that the UK makes up its mind – the closer they want to have access to the single market, the more they have to play by the rules that are the rules of the single market.” While this was widely reported in the UK, it was not in Germany, where the news agenda has moved beyond Brexit for the time being – or as a Zeit article said as the country left the EU – “Enough crying.”

Information about Brexit can be found on the Finance Ministry’s website in English here.

This week in Berlin

On Sunday, the Coalition Committee (a body responsible for coordinating cooperation between the coalition partners, made up of both federal and state politicians for the CDU and SPD) met. Apart from the corona virus, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that a key theme was the abolition of the Solidarzuschlag (solidarity surcharge) for most of the population. The Solidarzuschlag is an income and corporation tax which was imposed in 1995 to help fund the costs of unification; its abolition has been long planned, and it is now expected to end next year. This decisions was criticised by SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans, who wanted it abolished this year in order to ease financial pressure for tax payers; the committee decided however that uncertainty about the effects of the corona virus did not give the government the scope to abolish it this year.

The AfD, having failed to get four of its proposed candidates for the office of Vice President of the Bundestag elected, proposed Karsten Hilse, who has already been rejected twice. All the parties are entitled to propose a Vice President, but none of the AfD candidates have yet been approved by members of the Bundestag.

The Health Committee started its consideration on the draft law to ban conversion therapy for minors and for adults who are pressurised into giving their consent

The Tourism Committee heard that there had been a massive drop in business for Deutsche Bahn because of the Corona virus – 25 % in the first week of March, with 40% expected for this week. Long term, the company aims to double the number of passengers, and directly connect 80% of the population to long-distance transport. 9 billion euros will be invested in the next five years.

The Transport Committee was told by The Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure that the Sunday driving ban for trucks will be lifted by the end of April. The reason is the problems relating to the supply of food and drugs in some regions of because of the Corona crisis. The possibility of working on Sundays will also be considered, since there would be no point in lifting the Sunday driving ban if no-one can take delivery of the goods.

What’s coming up

18th March

Merkel -Macron – Erdogan summit in Istanbul.

23rd – 27th March

Next sitting week for parliament.

25th April

CDU leadership vote

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