News Digest 22nd May

The Union continues to dominate in corona times

Polls this week showed the CDU/CSU Union maintaining its strong lead over the other parties, albeit with a small fall in support: an ARD poll showed a slight drop for the Union from last week – to 38% – while the Greens stayed on 18% and the Unions’s coalition partners, the SPD, on 15%. The two points dropped by the government were picked up by the AfD and the FDP – both parties which have argued against the restrictions on public life because of the corona crisis. Similarly, an Insa-Meinungstrend poll put the Union on 37%, the SPD on 14% and the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) picking up slightly to 10.5%. Both polls would make either a Union-SPD coalition or a Union-Green coalition possibilities after the next election.

A Forsa poll showed that trust in German political institutions has grown since January, particularly in the Chancellor (+22) and the government (+26) – the only exception was trust in the EU, which fell by 3 points.

Demonstrations and conspiracy theories

More demonstrations against the corona restrictions took place at the weekend in several cities including Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin. Around 5,000 demonstrated in Stuttgart, more than a thousand in Munich and 23 small demonstrations, some of which included right-extremists such as members of the Dritte Weg (the Third Way), were registered in Berlin.

The Tagesschau reported that despite strict requirements to prevent the spread of the virus including wearing a mask, minimum distance and a limited number of participants, there were numerous violations of the requirements.

There was growing concern about the rise of conspiracy theories and the exploitation of the demonstrations by the far right. The head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV) Thomas Haldenwang said, “We see a trend of extremists, especially right-wing extremists, exploiting the demonstrations.” The Federal Criminal Police Office also said that the right was increasingly involved in the demonstrations.

SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appealed to people not to let themselves be used by right wingers saying, “Any person who doesn’t wear a mask or keep a minimum distance from others, and who screams conspiracy theories into the world without any concern for others, he or she is confusing courage with blind rage and freedom with empty egoism.” Although “people living in a democracy should always be able to discuss things respectfully with each other and should take every fact-based protests seriously….When radical extremists and anti-Semites use demonstrations to agitate and divide, then everyone should keep much more than 1.5 meters distance away.”

While the ZDF Politbarometer showed that the majority (66%) still believe that the government’s corona restrictions were correct, supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) were the exception, with 59% thinking they were too much.

Although many politicians have criticised the demonstrations, CDU leadership contender and Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, was reported as saying “It is absolutely legitimate and not unusual for people to demonstrate when there are the most serious restrictions on fundamental rights since the existence of the Federal Republic.” Laschet, who, before the corona crisis started was seen as a candidate of ‘measure and middle’ has been taking increasingly strong positions during the corona crisis.

This seems to partly have been due to concern about the economic effect of the restrictions in North-Rhine Westphalia, where Lachet’s coalition government has a majority of 1, and where a quarter of Germany’s population live, but also in reaction to the position taken by Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder. A very public power struggle has been played out between Laschet and Söder, who like Laschet is a possible Chancellor candidate for the Union next year. While Laschet was an early proponent of lifting restrictions and criticised scientists for giving changing advice, Söder took an early lead in anti-corona measures in March, implementing strict restrictions in Bavaria before any national agreement was in place, and being an influential voice in favour of maintaining strict restrictions.

Infections are falling and life resuming

The rate of active infections continued to fall to the levels of early March; by Thursday active infections had fallen to around 10,600. Many areas are reporting no or very low infection numbers per 100,000 of population. A third of the new infections are amongst health and care staff. The government scientific institute, the Robert Koch Institute, announced that an antibody study with 30,000 people will start in September and Health Minister Jens Spahn that the increase in testing to include preventative testing will start as soon as May. The Tagesschau reported that Spahn said there was already capacity in the system – 425,000 tests were carried out last week, but there was capacity for more.

On Saturday, the Bundesliga started again, playing ‘ghost games’ to empty stadiums. This re-start will secure almost €300m from broadcasters, reported the FT.

It was reported that Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was planning to make summer holiday travel possible and that the travel warning in dance until 14th June will be dropped for some countries. Last week Germany agreed a plan for opening its neighbouring border. The country was criticised by the World Medical Association for underestimating the risk to public health and acting solely on economic grounds. 

While all school classes are being brought back in steps, the Berliner Morgenpost reported that two schools had already had to shut again in Berlin due to two teachers having tested positive for corona.

Government accused of corona delay

Journalists from the Welt am Sonntag and Bayerischer Rundfunk have accused the government of dithering in January when they were warned about the virus and failing to take early enough action, reported the Deutsche Welle. In January Health Minister Jens Spahn said that the outbreak was milder than an influenza outbreak and in mid February that there was no danger of a pandemic. The government scientific institute, the Robert Koch Institute, said the v virus would spread slowly and only affect certain regions. The journalists argues that 78 days passed between the government being informed of an outbreak of an unknown form of pneumonia in China (end of December) and action being taken (beginning of March).

More state aid decided

Following news last week that tax revenue for the federal, state and municipalities will fall this year by 82 billion compared to last year, it was reported that Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is planning aid to municipalities totalling nearly 57 billion euros. A concept paper from the Ministry of Finance, discussed both acute emergency aid, which is intended to compensate for collapsing trade tax revenues, and an debt aid for highly indebted cities and municipalities.

Following prolonged negotiations, a multi-billion state aid package for Lufthansa, which would give the government influence in the company (limited to 20 percent and two seats on the supervisory board), has been agreed. while the SPD wanted a larger government stake, the CDU/CSU politicians warned against excessive state involvement. The unions are concerned that the fact that the state waived a blocking minority could mean that employees’ interest are not protected, reported ntv.

EU recovery fund

During the corona crisis there have been critiscms that the EU countries have not acted together in fighting the virus or mitigation the economic effects – possibly one reason that faith in the EU has declined in Germany. On Monday, Germany and France proposed a 500 billion EU recovery fund, in order to create a co-ordinated European response: the funds would be raised by the European Commission borrowing on capital markets an used to support EU spending rather than loans to national governments.  The Spiegel quoted Angela Merkel as saying “The aim is for Europe to emerge from this crisis stronger, more cohesive and in solidarity” and said that Merkel had fought for what she described as a “extraordinary, unique effort.”

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said that the agreement with France was a convincing signal of European solidarity: “Europe faces the greatest test of its history because of the corona pandemic and it is very good news that we are all living up to our responsibilities.”

The Zeit cautioned that it is questionable whether all EU countries will agree to the plan, which must be adopted unanimously by all 27 countries because it is linked to the seven-year EU budget. The next day it was reported that the European Commission is set to propose a mixture of grants and loans next week, rather than the Franco-German proposal of just grants.

The Franco-German plan has majority support amongst the German population, found the Spiegel, with just over 50% approving. CDU leadership contender Friedrich Merz, however, warned that Germany is walking on a “very fine line” and questioned whether the bonds proposed by Germany and France were compatible with EU law, reported the Zeit.

An FT article detailing the proposal and the sticking points can be found here and one on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s complicated negotiation process here.

War in the AfD

Last week, it emerged that Brandenburg AfD leader Andreas Kalbitz, who was one of the figures classified as right-extreme by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), has been investigated by the party for his links to a banned neo-Nazi organisation, the Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend (HDJ). 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.

This week, civil war erupted in the party. Björn Höcke, leader in Thurigina and also classified by the BfV as right-extrteme, announced that he would “not allow” the split and destruction of the AfD. He accused party leader Jörg Meuthen and party vice chair Beatrix von Storch of wanting the AfD to be a different party, which was no longer a real alternative to the established parties. Anyone who, like them, relies on arguments from “party opponents” in a party-internal conflict, he said, is “betraying the party“. Kalbitz’s Brandenburg party announced it wanted to keep him as leader and on Monday, reported ZDF, the parliamentary faction in Brandenburg voted by 18 – 2 with 1 abstension to keep him as a member of the parliamentary group, even though he had been expelled from the national party. This, commented ZDF, sends a signal to the top of the party, but according to Kalbitz was “not a declaration of war.”

Jörg Meuthen was quoted by ntv as saying, “A state leader who just literally announced a few weeks ago that he would like to ‘sweat out’ members he disliked from the party and who repeatedly advises liberal-minded, free-market and conservative-minded members to switch to other parties should perhaps rather question his own behaviour, rather than accuse the majority of the federal executive board of betrayal of the party.” But his co-leader Tino Chrupalla criticised Kalbitz’s expulsion, reported the Zeit on Monday.

As the dispute escalated, Jörg Meuthen said that he would be ready to hold a special party conference to discuss the dispute. Meuthen also attached parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland who “always has a protective hand” over Kalbitz and the extreme wing in the AfD.

Meanwhile, the party has apparently lost the documents which would justify Kalbitz’s expulsion, reported the Spiegel: parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland said that the application for AfD membership submitted by Kalbitz in 2013 could no longer be found. The executive had declared Kalbitz’s admission to the AfD void in 2013 because he had concealed his former membership of the Republicans and Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend. After losing the form, commented the Spiegel, only witnesses who want to remember Kalbitz’s statements seven years ago could prove this.

Committee against right-wing extremism and racism

The cabinet committee against right-wing extremism and racism met for the first time on Wednesday. The aim of the committee is to “develop an effective package of measures that will work in the long term to create a right-wing extremism and racism free and equal opportunity society….in accordance with the values of the constitution.” In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the integration Commissioner Widmann-Mauz said that it was important to fight racism as well as right-extremism: “It is not enough to only address right-wing extremist riots and violence. We have to dry up the ideological breeding ground for these crimes.” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the chair of the committee spoke about the threat posed by right-wing extremism: “This is where our security in Germany is most at risk.” The AfD, which has been accused of complicity with extreme right terrorism – was not impressed -its domestic policy spokesman said the committee wants to “fix a dogma of ‘diversity.”

Electoral reform

This Bundestag, elected in 2017, is the largest ever, with 709 members (instead of the 598 designated by electoral law). After the 2021 election, there could be 850 MPs, or even more, and so there are currently discussions taking place about reform of electoral law.

The Zeit reported this week that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had rejected an SPD reform proposal to limit the Bundestag to 690 members by dropping the directly elected mandates in some constituencies. Seehofer said that this would be a “fundamental departure” from the German system of personalised proportional representation. Next week, on Monday 25th, a joint bill by the parliamentary groups of the FDP, Die Linke and Greens to amend the Federal Election Act with the aim of reducing the size of the Bundestag in future elections will be discussed at a hearing of the Interior and Home Affairs Committee. 

The reason the number of seats change from election to election is to be found in Germany’s complicated electoral system. The Federal Republic has 299 constituencies.  At elections, voters have two votes: they elect their constituency MP with their first vote (direct mandate) – the candi­date who wins the largest share of the vote in the constituency is elected. People choose a party using their second vote. Each party has a state list of candidates, and the parties are allotted seats proportionately to the second vote. In principle, half of the seats in the Bun­destag are distributed on the basis of the party lists, while the other half are con­stituency seats. However, this only accounts for only 598 of the current 709 seats.   The additional 11 1 seats were awarded on the basis of the overhang mandates (46 seats) and the balance mandates (65 seats).

Over­ hang mandates occur when the number of constituency seats won by a party in a particular state exceeds the number of seats to which it would be entitled on the strength of the second vote.  In addition, since 2013 the effect of the overhang mandates has been offset by the allocation of addition­al seats –   balance mandates – which  ensure that the distribution of seats accurately reflects the proportional distribution of the second votes.

Slaughterhouse workers

Following outbreaks of corona amongst foreign workers in several slaughterhouses across the country, the substandard working and living conditions of the workers were exposed last week, with the Deustche Welle referring to modern slavery. Employment Minister Hubertus Heil said that the news was “appalling, shameful and intolerable” and argued that the core of the evil is “this type of sub-sub-sub-entrepreneurship” in the industry. This week, the Cabinet agreed new rules to regulate the industry, particularly the use of subcontractors in the branch. Meat packing plants and large slaughterhouses will be made responsible for workers, who are mostly migrants. Slaughtering animals and processing meat will only be permitted for employees of the meat packing plants themselves. Announcing the new rules, Heil said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that the situation in the meat industry “not only endangers the employees, but the public.”

Court ruling on surveillance of foreigners

Germany’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, ruled this week that the current practice of monitoring telecommunications of foreign citizens outside Germany goes against the rights of press freedom and privacy of communications. The ruling was made because a group of foreign journalists and the German journalists’ union brought a case against a 2017 law which gave the intelligence service the power to collect information about foreigners abroad. The journalists had argued that although German journalists cannot legally be placed under surveillance, if they work together with colleagues from other countries, who can be monitored, then their communications could be caught up with the communications of the foreign journalists. According to a Spiegel report which analysed how the information is collected, the Federal Intelligence Service’s (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND) mandate is broad…..not only to collect information on topics such as terrorism, smuggling, the arms trade and cyber threats, but also to provide insights into all questions of foreign and security policy that the government considers urgent. As a rule, the espionage targets are outside of Europe.”

Berlin Tegel airport to shut

After years of debate, Berlin Tegel, the quirky and easily-accessible airport in the inner city, is to shut. It was supposed to have been closed already in favour of the new Berlin airport (BER) outside the city; but BER has become a running joke after it failed fire safety checks in 2011, missed several new opening target dates and has still not managed to open (although it has been announced that it will open this autumn). A drastic decrease in travellers passing through both Tegel and Berlin Schoenfeld because of the corona crisis meant that the airport company decided this week that Tegel will be shut on June 15th on a temporary basis – but it is not expected to reopen, reported the Tagesspiegel. Tegel is a much loved airport (in a referendum in 2017, a majority voted to continue operating the airport even after BER was opened), but is a noise hazard to the residents in the area.

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