News Digest 24th April

In a week when the country started to take some small steps towards resuming normal life, the range and tone of media reports changed. While the government still has extremely high approval ratings, there was a shift in mood in reporting, as well as more focus on other stories.

Government unity, cooperation between the coalition partners and cooperation between the 16 states has been impressive in the last few weeks; but unity on the loosening of restrictions started to wobble amidst concerns about the effect of greater social contact and different interpretations of the agreed guidleines. Fears that there could be a second wave of infections were not assuaged when the government scientific institute, the Robert Koch Institute, re-assessed the re-infection rate up from 0.7 to 0.9.

While the restrictions have only been slightly eased so far, there have been reports of an increasing number of parties and gatherings, as people start to feel more relaxed. The effects of the initial loosening of restrictions will only become clear in two weeks, reported ZDF, and the federal government and states will discuss further measures on 30th April.

On Monday, the first day of the loosing of restrictions, Angele Merkel warned people to remain disciplined and vigilant, saying, “We must not lose sight of the fact that we are still at the beginning of the pandemic and are far from over the mountain.” She said that she understood that people were suffering from the restrictions, but in order to prevent a relapse, no-one should be reckless. Accurate tracking of all infection chains is vital now and 105 mobile teams will be set up and trained to help identify contacts of infected people locally.

The Welt reported that, in a CDU meeting on Monday, Merkel criticised what she controversially labelled the ‘Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien’ – ‘opening debate orgies’ – taking place in some states: she said intense discussion about further loosening of restrictions was not helpful as it could encourage people to not abide by current restrictions.

The FDP deputy Wolfgang Kubicki criticised Merkel, arguing that she was assuming regulatory powers in the corona crisis that she does not have: “It is legally clear: it is not the opening that has to be justified, but the maintenance of the closing.”

In a Bundestag speech on Thursday, Merkel repeated her warning that we are only at the beginning of the pandemic and cautioned some states not to proceed too quickly; the Tagesschau commented that, “She kept to herself which federal states she had in mind. But there is little doubt that she was thinking not least of North Rhine-Westphalia and thus of her party friend Armin Laschet. The SPD-governed Rhineland-Palatinate has also recently been criticised.”

The development of a corona app, which should track infections, has been bogged down by data protection concerns, but good news came on Wednesday, with the announcement that vaccine trials have been approved. 200 people between the ages of 18 and 55 will be test the vaccine from the company BioNtech.

There were criticisms, such as in the Berliner Morgenpost, that despite the fact that the heads of all 16 states had meet with Federal government representatives last Wednesday to agree a nationwide loosening of the restrictions, different states are now implementing different rules at different times. For example, the Morgenpost reported that only 4 states – Bavaria, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Hesse – were sticking to the shop opening regulations which had been agreed. At the end of last week, two states, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommerania, introduced an obligation to wear face masks  – in both states for public transport and in Saxony also in shops. This annoucment was followed by similar ones by all the other states during the week. Saxony also said it would allow small religious gatherings of up to 15 worshipers with a preacher and an aide. Schools across the country opened this week for those taking Abitur exams – amidst protest from some students, who felt unprepared and at risk. It was reported that Berlin has cancelled the marathon due to take place in September, but at the end of the week, doubt was cast in that decision, leaving the possibility it could take place. Bavaria’s government announced that the Oktoberfest, which has been planned for the 19th September to the 4th October, won’t take place. However, the Bundesliga will start again in May, playing matches in empty stadiums.

The Union is still winning

Polls showed that the CDU/CSU Union’s remarkable corona recovery is holding firm: Forsa polled the Union on 39%, as much as the Greens, SPD and Left party together. This is a stunning turnaround: as Germany entered the corona crisis, these three parties had a majority over a weakened Union which had plummeted to historic lows.

Merkel’s time as Chancellor will end next year; the crisis has given her renewed respect and popularity, meaning she could well finish on a high. She is acknowledged to be an unparalleled crisis Chancellor – as the Zeit wrote, “She can do crisis” and that, “Merkel is pragmatic, sober and flexible, not an ideologist with irrefutable positions, not a naive romantic. She keeps calm even in tense moments, is rarely nervous or absent. In negotiations, it is reported that she is consistently, tough, resilient, always well informed.”

The paper argued that, “in emergencies, the willingness of people to follow their political leadership is strong. In this respect, it is no sensation that Angela Merkel is currently extremely popular.” However, what marks Merkel out from other leaders is not only that she has always been regarded as doing her job well (although not as well as current polling suggests); the lowest approval she has ever had is 50%. In addition, she has abilities which help her popularity, such as her natural search for compromise – she would rather reach compromise than assert her one view – and her scientific knowledge. She is present at press conferences at least once a week, but always as a team player, presenting the abilities of her colleagues. She is being praised from all sides, including the opposition: “Germany is once again a role model, has a robust health system, most intensive care beds, good illnesses, the measures serve as a role model for others. Of course, Merkel is not responsible for all of this. But it rubs off on the Chancellor’s reputation.”

As reported last week, the power struggle (and positioning for the CDU/CSU Union’s 2021 Chancellorship candidature) between North-Rhine Westphalia’s Prime Minister Armin Laschet and Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder continued. The Berliner Morgenpost reported that, “Laschet, who is applying for the chairmanship of the CDU, recently argued for a loosening of the corona restrictions and thus defeated Markus Söder. The Bavarian Prime Minister had played a pioneering role in imposing exit restrictions.” They were criticised by SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil, who said the competition between the two prime ministers in the proposals for the crisis sometimes looked “like a cockfight” for the legacy of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Women do it better

The Zeit also reported this week on the idea that in countries with female heads, such as Iceland, Norway, Germany, Taiwan and Finland, the crisis has been managed relatively well – for example, the population was informed and warned at an early stage, public life was shut down transparently and carefully and mortality is relatively low. A sociologist contrasted this with countries with male heads, where the seriousness of the situation was not understood or denied for far too long – for example, in China, Xi Jinping tried to keep it secret for a long time; Trump declared the virus to be the Democrats’ invention; Macron went to a theatre on March 16; Netanyahu shut down courts overnight; and Bolsonaro declared his population virus-resistant.

Financial aid programmes expanded

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has continued to build on his original 1.2 trillion aid package with a further 10 billion of assistance. On Wednesday evening, the ‘Koalitionsausschuss’ – the coalition government committee – agreed to an increase in short work money, as well as a temporary reduction in the VAT rate for food in the catering industry from 19% to 7%.

The Muich Ifo Institute, which in March predicted that the economy would shrink between 7.2 and 20.6 percentage points, this week warned that 18% of companies will lay off staff as a result of the crisis, including 15% of retailers. Similarly, consumer mood was reported to be “in freefall.”

In a relatively optimistic interview, Scholz said on Sunday that, although he did not rule out the possibility of incurring additional debt beyond the €156 billion that was approved in late March, that might not be necessary “if we manage to move the economic curve upwards again in the second half of the year.” He also said top earners may face higher taxes after the crisis; this however was rejected by CDU politicians. SPD Leader Walter-Borjans also called for a higher burden for those on high incomes and rejected demands for lower taxes for the rich. “Tax cuts for millionaires, such as those demanded by the CDU, CSU and FDP, are therefore nonsense,” the Welt reported.

There has been continued criticism that large companies are exploiting the state aid. The Spiegel, for example, reported that despite receiving state aid, many companies are continuing to distribute profits. For example, “the vehicle supplier Knorr-Bremse has now registered short-time work for almost all German locations. The company has also borrowed over 750 million euros to “ensure the stability of the company in a challenging environment”. At the same time, Knorr-Bremse has announced that it will distribute up to half of its annual profit as a dividend “despite the current challenges.”

The generous state aid given to freelancers and companies in Germany has also been exploited by scammers, reported the Deutsche Welle. At least five states have reported scams setting up fraudulent accounts to receive money and North-Rhine Westphalia had to suspend its programme for a week. The FT reported that Employment Minister Heil has promised that all scammer will be investigated and prosecuted: “Most people will behave decently and the black sheep that are committing fraud, we will catch them, and we will punish them.” 

In Berlin, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry asked the Berlin Senat for a loosening of the Sunday trading restrictions in the next two years, in order for businesses to make up money lost. Currently shops in Germany do not open on Sundays, except on special Sunday Opening days.

Cracks in the health system

The Taggespiegel reported that the government is preparing a second package of ‘Corona Laws’, which will be passed in Cabinet next week and debated in the Bundestag on 7th May. The draft laws include provisions for people to be tested for the virus at the expense of their health insurers even if they have no symptoms; an increase in tests to 4 and a half million a week; stricter reporting requirements; and more preventative testing in care homes.

While the health system is continuing to cope, there have been reports of dissatisfaction amongst hospital staff, who feel they are not being properly protected. The Zeit reported that union ver.di has said that they have received a large number of criticisms about the lack of protective equipment, worries about infection or poor work organization, and that employees are worried about consequences if they complain.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet agreed that there should be higher minimum wages for nursing staff, particularly in the east of the country, reported the Tagesschau. Further, a planned “Corona Bonus” of 1,500 euros for nursing staff is planned; however, health insurance companies have questioned where the money is coming from to pay for this. Health companies have also questioned Health Minister Jens Spahn’s aim of achieving 4.5 million corona tests a week, since they would carry the costs.

More criticism came about a ruling to toughen up the procedures for obtaining sick notes; during the corona crisis, patients who had respiratory complaints could get a sick note over the telephone, but it was announced that this provision would be ended. Health practitioners warned of an increased risk to themselves and patitents, and the policy was quickly reinstated.

Corona bonds

At the European Union summit, the issue of corona bonds was discussed again. The Deutsche Welle explains why Germany is against these bonds.

In the Bundestag on Thursday, Merkel did not mention corona bonds, but pledged solidarity with other European nations and said that Germany was willing to increase what it pays into the EU budget.

Small demonstrations allowed

Meanwhile, the Federal Constitutional Court allowed a (very small) demonstration of about 50 people to take place in Stuttgart; demonstrators were protesting against the restriction of rights in the corona crisis. A demonstration in Berlin was broken up by police. On Monday, a Pegida demonstration of 80 people under the banner ’80 for 80 million’ was given permission to take place in Dresden – after much criticism, the number was reduced to a maximum of 15 demonstrators for 30 minutes. Pegida stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West and is a thuggish anti-Islam, far-right movement, which organised mass demonstrations at the time of the 2015/16 refugee crisis. The right-wing extremist association Pro Chemnitz was also allowed to hold a demonstration.

Pension increase

Despite the trillions being spent on the corona crisis, employment Minister Hubertus Heil announced on Wednesday a pension increase from 1st July for 21 million pensioners. In the west of the country, pensions will increase by 3.45% and in the east, 4.2%. This is one of the measures which aim to equalise conditions in the west and east of the country following unification 30 years ago.

Racist attacks

The Tagesspigel reported on an issue seen in other EU countries; attacks on people with Asian backgrounds. The paper reported that “racism against people whose ancestors, or who themselves come from Asia, or who are broadly thought to be Asians has increased enormously. There are insults, threats, physical attacks……people of Asian origin are identified in Germany as guilty, as potential carriers, as an infectious danger.”

Arrival of refugee minors

After much-criticised delay due to the corona virus, the first 47 unaccompanied minors arrived from the Greek refugee camps this week; 350 are supposed to come in the next weeks. Before the crisis, 10 EU states had agreed to take up to 1,600 children. Not surprisingly, the small number of children being evacuated has been criticised, especially given the fact that there are over 5,000 unaccompanied minors in Greece.

Seasonal workers

While only 47 refugees have arrived, 80,000 seasonal workers have been flown in to pick fruit and vetagables. One of these workers, reported the Zeit, has died of corona, thus raising fears of further infections. The paper argues that asparagus isn’t worth the risk.

AfD fails to discipline Höcke

Following a joke about Auschwitz made by Björn Höcke, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader in Thuriniga, the party executive – despite massive criticism from party members – saw no reason for disciplinary measures against him. Instead, the party’s federal executive board voted against by 10 to 2 votes.

This is important because it shows that, despite the fact that Höcke was recently pressurised into dissolving his nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel, his influence, and that of the extreme right, remains in the party. More on Höcke can be found here and on the AfD here.

Right-wing publisher’s institute classified as suspect case of extremism

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution has classified the institute of the publisher Götz Kubitschek (who has close contacts to Björn Höcke) as a suspected case. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution said that there are “indications for efforts against the free democratic basic order.” Links between the Institute for State Policy (IfS) and the right-wing of the AfD and other right-wing extremists were given as reasons. Höcke has spoken at events organised by the institute.

Fighter jets

The Spiegel reported that the CDU Defence Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer promised the USA that Germany would order 45 fighter jets without consulting government partners, the SPD, to the outrage of both the SPD and opposition parties.

Draftz law on citizenship

The Deutsche Welle reported a Die Welt story, that the German government is planning to make it harder for foreigner nationals to obtain German citizenship. The paper says that the reason is to deter asylum seekers from providing false information about their identities: Under a draft law, if an immigrant has lived in Germany under a false identity (eg name or country of origin), these years will not count towards eligibility for citizenship (currently people are eligible for citizenship if they have lived in Germany for 8 years).

Brexit negotiations

The Spiegel reported on the re-opening of the Brexit negotiations via video conference on Monday, and the refusal of the British government to extend the transition period, even amidst the corona disruption. The caused the Spiegel’s Brussels correspondent to comment on twitter, “My tip: Boris Johnson can’t believe his luck that he can cover up the damage caused by a hard Brexit at the end of the year with the even greater damage that the Corona crisis is causing for his country.”

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