News Digest 15th May

Corona crisis

Increased debate and disagreement has come with the lifting of restrictions on public life, as well as rising concern about conspiracy theories, but the government’s approval ratings remain high.

Last week, following growing division amongst the sixteen states, it was agreed that states would now take responsibility for their own decisions on how far and fast to lift restrictions, although certain elements remained the same nationally: social distancing rules remain, as does the requirement to wear face masks on public transport and in shops. There was also an agreement that states must act locally if more than 50 new cases per 100,000 of population were reported within 7 days. This target had already been reached in 5 areas by Sunday, when the government scientific institute, the Robert Koch Institut, reported that the R rate was over 1.1.

The rate had declined to below 0.81 by Wednesday, with the overall trend of active infections continuing to fall, and a marked decline in the percentage of positive tests being recorded.

Speaking in the Bundestag on Wednesday, Angela Merkel cautioned that people need to be courageous and prudent: “We have not accepted all the previously unthinkable restrictions on our lives — including temporary restrictions on our rights — only to risk a relapse now.” See a clip with English subtitles from the Deutsche Welle here. Her speech was criticised by the Spiegel for failing to take the opportunity to address the conspiracy theories about the virus.

Parliament passed the second package of corona laws this week, including a measures to protect the populations (a massive expansion in the number of tests to include preventative tests) and a bonus for carers. Financial measures which were passed included an increase in short work money and an extension of the time a person can receive unemployment benefits. Details can be found in the Parliamentary Digest.

On Monday it was reported that Germany is investing 750 million euros in research into a vaccine – Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek said that she does not expect a vaccine to be available until mid-2021 at the earliest

The new corona hospital in Berlin as officially opened. It has an initial capacity to take 500 patients if hospitals reach their limits in the course of the pandemic. Berlin’s Health Senator, Dilek Kalayci, said that even though the number of new infections in Berlin has recently declined, a second and possibly a third wave of infections will come and that overload situations such as those in the hospitals of New York or Northern Italy with thousands of deaths must be avoided.

Concerned about public transport, massive numbers of people have taken to riding bicycles, with bicycle sales rising by 34% on the same time last year.

Border controls will be relaxed from Saturday, announced Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, although there will not be a complete end to the controls until June. An agreement with France, Switzerland and Austria will extend the border controls from May 16 to June 15, but they will be eased and from May 15th, there will be no more border controls at the borders with Luxembourg. The border with the Netherlands have not been controlled during the crisis, and the borders with Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic remain until June, but being discussed with the respective governments. Entry from non-border countries will continue to be banned. The government policy on border openings was criticised by the Green Party for lacking an EU-wide strategy and by others, including a virologist, for being too early.

This ZDF video on the right shows the detail.

Despite increased debate in the country about the restrictions, satisfaction with the government’s handling of the crisis remained high and the CDU/CSU Union continued its astonishing revival, hitting 40% in the polls.

Coalition partners, the SPD, continued to languish on 15%, the Greens fell further to 15% (from second place on 22% – 23% before the corona crisis hit Germany), meaning that the SPD, Greens and Left Party together are only on 37%, less than the Union. In the European elections last year, the Union only had over 40% in the over 70s age group, while the Greens had a majority in all age groups to 44 years; now the Greens only have a lead in the 18-24 age group

Nevertheless, on Saturday, amidst a rise in conspiracy theories about the virus, demonstrations against the lockdowns took place in 5 cities. -and more are planned this weekend. According to the Tagesspiegel, the demonstrators were mainly a mixture of anti vaccinators and right wing conspiracists – including neo-Nazis and AfD supporters who read conspiracy theories via the extreme right alternative media. One high profile demonstrator was Thomas Kemmerich, the FDP leader in Thuringia, who, with the support of the Alternative for Germany, stood to be Minister President of Thuringia in February and set off a damaging political crisis.

The Spiegel reported a survey which showed that a large majority in the country – over 70% – do not have sympathy for these protests. Amongst the quarter who do are voters of the parties which have been sceptical about the restrictions: 77% of AfD supporters have sympathy for the demonstrations, as do 53% of FDP supporters.

The anger has also taken the form of violence against journalists and the police – in Berlin and Dortmund, reporters and camera teams have been attacked. In a town near Cologne, two men who refused to wear masks in a supermarket seriously injured two policemen – the Tagesspiegel reported that the men were thought to be Reichsbürger – far-right groups which do not recognise the legitimacy of the Federal government, which were banned earlier this year.

During the course of the week, there was increasing concern amongst politicians about the protests, with worries that the rise of conspiracy theories could provide ground for radicalisation, particularly from the far-right. SPD leader Saskia Esken said that it was necessary to actively resist conspiracy theorists and extremist groups trying to capitalise on lockdown cabin fever, saying that “We have to show ourselves to be pugnacious democrats.” CDU deputy leader Thorsten Frei addressed the conspiracy theories in an article for ntv: “some people want to use the corona crisis as an excuse to protest against democracy and the state they have always rejected. Among them are conspiracy theorists, vaccination opponents, left and right extremists…..The corona pandemic is not a conspiracy or invention by the federal government, but deadly serious. If you don’t want to believe this, remember the desperate situation in Manhattan, Lombardy or Madrid.”

Economy continues to be hit

On Friday it was announced that the German economy has shrunk by 2.2% in the last quarter of 2019 and the first three months of this year, the fastest drop since the financial crisis of 2008/9.

More gloomy economic news came from the Munich Ifo institute this week, which surveyed 6,500 businesses: almost one in five companies decided to lay off workers or not to extend fixed-term contracts in April because of the economic impact of the pandemic. Restaurants, hotels and recruitment companies were particularly badly hit, with more than half cutting jobs.

Half of German companies have applied to put over 10 million employees on short work (reduced or zero hours, and the government pays a percentage of wages), and while this was a very effective tool during the 2008/9 financial crisis, there is concern that long term, short work can not protect jobs. This Deutsche Welle article shows the percentage of workers put onto short work by sector. More on concerns about short work money can be found in the Parliamentary Digest here.

The Finance Ministry reported that for the first time since the financial crisis in 2009, federal, state and local tax revenues are falling. It is expected that around 82 billion euros less in taxes will come in this year than last year, which is a decrease of more than ten percent; further falls are expected next year too.

The decline in revenues fed into another dispute in government. In November, the SPD won a hard fight battle with the CDU about a basic pension. Finance Minister Scholz has insisted that the basic pension will come in as planned next year, but some CDU politicians – most notable the CDU/CSU parliamentary group leader Ralph Brinkhaus – have insisted that lack of agreement on how it is to be funded means that it will not be possible to proceed with the plans. Scholz rejected this, saying, “We give large companies loans of several billion euros, and then someone comes along and says that we can’t pay the basic pension, which costs just over a billion – someone like that actually should be booed.” More on this in the Parliamentary Digest.

Scholz rejected suggestions that Germany cannot afford the basic pension

Tax divisions

Another gap between Merkel’s CDU and coalition partners the SPD widened this week. While the CDU has firmly rejected the idea of tax rises, SPD leaders Walter-Borjans and Esken have proposed increased taxes for the well-off as a means of paying for the extra borrowing caused by the crisis. Olaf Scholz in an interview with the Tagesspiegel did not discuss new tax rises, but said that “The advantages of a functioning welfare state are particularly evident in this crisis. We could not do everything we do today without a fair tax system based on the understanding that those who make more money also pay more taxes….. We already wrote in the program for the 2017 Bundestag election that we want to lower taxes for lower and middle incomes. In return, those who earn very much should make a slightly higher contribution. That remains our goal and will certainly be part of our next election program.”

Scholz rejected the idea that the positive mood in Germany will change, saying, “I am convinced that trust in our politics remains high.” Recongising the struggles many people are undergoing, he said, “I can only guarantee that we will do everything we can to ensure that as many companies as possible get through the crisis ….and that jobs are preserved. I am fighting for every job.”

Women bear the brunt

A report published this week found that the effects of the crisis are being felt by women more than men: not only do women bear the brunt of extra childcare and home tuition, the existing wage gap is likely to widen further, found researchers from the WSI-Institut. In households with at least one child under the age of 14, 27% of women and only 16 % of men reduced their working hours to carry out childcare.

75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War

Last Friday, on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a well-received speech which not only celebrated German democracy today but addressed German guilt for the horrors of the war. He said that, “It is only because we Germans look our past in the face and because we accept our historic responsibility that the peoples of the world have come to trust our country once more.”

Addressing the issue of patriotism, he echoed his thoughts in his speech on November 9th 2019, the anniversary of both the fall of the wall and Kristallnacht, when he had said, “Accepting ambivalences, carrying light and shadow, joy and sadness in our hearts is part and parcel of being a German. It is part and parcel of belonging to this country and its history.” In his speech last week he said that “No German patriotism can come without its cracks. Without a clear awareness of light and darkness, joy and sorrow, gratitude and shame.” European unity, he argued, was essential to make sure history does not repeat: “Never again,” we vowed after the war. But for us Germans in particular, this “never again” means “never again alone”. This sentence is truer in Europe than anywhere else. We must keep Europe together. We must think, feel and act as Europeans. If we do not hold Europe together, also during and after this pandemic, then we will have shown ourselves not to be worthy of 8 May. If Europe fails, the “never again” also fails.”

A historical week for Berlin

May 12th was also the anniversary of the end of the Berlin blockade: In June 1948, the Soviets cut West Berlin, a western island in communist controlled eastern Germany, off from the surrounding areas meaning that no goods could come into Berlin by road or rail. For nearly a year, American and British planes brought millions of tons of food and other essentials into West Berlin. In a ceremony to mark the anniversary, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller said “Berlin will never forget how its freedom was secured around the clock. The Western Allied troops looked after the people in free Berlin tirelessly, only a few years after the war. Perciles said that the secret of freedom is courage. We should remember that today more than ever.”

A piece of post-war history in Berlin nearly disappeared this week – one of the largest original sections of the Berlin Wall in Pankow was almost completely torn down. Only 10 metres remains; this piece has been listed and will be conserved.

Meanwhile, Berlin has seen the development of new ways of going to to the cinema – the Morgenpost reported that drive-in cinemas are being opened in parking lots while The Guardian reported that ‘Windowflicks” is rejecting films onto buildings in courtyards, so that resident scan view out of their windows.

Russian hacking

Angela Merkel said in the Bundestag on Wednesday that, following an investigation by the Federal Attorney General, there was “hard evidence” of Russian involvement in a large-scale cyber attack on the Bundestag in 2015 and spoke of an “outrageous” process. The Spiegel reported that this attack had completely paralysed the Bundestag’s IT infrastructure in May 2015, meaning that the entire parliament had to be taken offline for days. The attackers had entered the Bundestag’s systems by e-mail, including ones purporting to have been sent by the United Nations. The user data captured in this way allowed them to spread unnoticed in the Bundestag network and to export files for days.

Merkel said on Wednesday, “I take these things very seriously because I believe that research has been done very properly. I can honestly say: it hurts me.” She referred to a strategy of “hybrid warfare” in Russia, which also included “disorientation” and “distortion of facts”. The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that the investigators found that the Russian military intelligence GRU had been responsible for the attack and obtained an international arrest warrant against a young Russian hacker named Dimitri Badin.

More right-extremist problems for the Alternative for Germany

The AfD is having a bad run of it. It has fallen over 5% in the opinion polls recently, partly because of its confused – and unpopular – response to the corona crisis. Its nationalist wing, the Flügel, was dissolved after it was classified as right-extreme by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and a joke about Auschwitz made by Flügel leader Björn Höcke, who is the AfD leader in Thuringia. Two weeks ago, the party sacked its parliamentary press spokesman, Christian Lüth, who has worked for the party since 2013 and has been a close associate of parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland. According to the Zeit, the reason was Lüth’s attitude towards National Socialism. The Zeit reported that “Lüth is said to have repeatedly referred to himself as a ‘fascist’ and to have referred to his ‘Aryan’ descent with reference to his grandfather.”

This week it has emerged that Brandenburg leader Andreas Kalbitz, who was one of the figures classified as right-extreme by the BfV, has been investigated by the party for his links to a banned neo-Nazi organisation, the Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend” (HDJ). The Tagesschau reported that “Kalbitz admitted that his name could have been “on a list of interested parties or contacts”. He describes this as “quite possible and likely”. This has emerged from a five-page statement to the party’s federal executive committee.” Although some of the executive want to expel Kalbitz, others are concerned that there is not enough evidence, reported the Tagesschau.

Kalbitz and Höcke

Following the release of that information, it was reported that the regional party in Brandenburg could be classified as a suspected case of extremism by the BfV and on Friday night that Kalbitz had been thrown out of the party.

German constitutional court’s rejection of ECB bond purchases

Following last week’s decision by the German constitutional court that the European Central Bank’s public sector bond purchases may unconstitutional, the European Court of Justice said that  EU’s legal order would be jeopardised if national courts diverged from its rulings on whether EU institutions’ actions were compliant with the law, reported the FT . The plaintiffs were brought the case in the German court were a mix of businessmen, academics and politicians and included founder member of the Alternative for Germany, Bernd Lucke, who left the party after it changed from eurosceptic to right populist. A detailed examination of this issue, and the implications it has for the EU, can be found in the FT here.

Brexit ‘catastrophe’

German business worries about the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations accelerated this week; despite the corona crisis, the UK government has ruled out any extension to the transition period. The managing director of the BDI, the industry federation, released a statement saying that “The coronavirus crisis has already cost many jobs across Europe. If the Brexit transition phase expires without an agreement at the end of the year, it would turn an already difficult economic situation into a catastrophe.”

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