News Digest 29th May

As the number of active corona cases continued to decline, the agenda shifted this week to post-corona recovery; but the debate about lifting restrictions continued, with some significant differences between states. Meanwhile the civil war in the Alternative for Germany intensified, and the Foreign Office requested an interview with the Russian ambassador over the hacking of the Bundestag in 2015.

Economic stimulus programme

The government is planning to implement an economic stimulus package to combat the corona crisis starting at the beginning of June. The Spiegel reported some details that have so far become clear: one of the measures is that parents should receive a one-off payment of 300 euros for each child, a policy proposed by Family Minister Franziska Giffey. This alone would cost between 5 – 6 billion euros. Other groups which have lost their entire income during the corona lockdown, such as bar owners and creative artists, will also benefit.

Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia, and candidate to be CDU leader Armin Lachet went a step further, proposing a 600 euro bonus for all children. The Greens presented their own economic stimulus ideas in a paper proposing an investment fund of 500 billion euros as part of a ten year programme. Investment in energy networks and a turnaround in transport, including the expansion of cycle highways and the promotion and expansion of rail and public transport were proposed, as well as access to fast and secure broadband internet in order to advance digitalisation in Germany.

EU recovery

On Saturday, the Deustche Welle reported that Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden – named the ‘frugal four’ – have put forward a counter-proposal to France and Germany’s €500 billion coronavirus economic recovery plan, which was proposed last week. The frugal four’s plan centres on loans, rather than, as the Merkel-Macron plan outlined, grants. These plans and the EU Commission’s combined 750 billion loan and grant proposal, which was published on Wednesday, were debated in the Bundestag on Thursday – see the Parliamentary Digest.

In the the Welt am Sonntag, Bundestag President and former CDU Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, supported the Macron-Merkel plan for corona aid, saying Europe is “experiencing economic slump the like of which we haven’t experiences in our lifetimes…at the same time, the global order structure is shifting. If Europe has any chance at all, it must show solidarity and that is is capable of action.” He rejected the frugal four’s plans for loans saying that “loans to the member states would have been stones instead of bread, because several [member states] are already heavily indebted.” 

Corona restrictions: the debate continues

There was continuing concern about protests against the restrictions on daily life and about the corona conspiracy theories that are being exploited by the far-right: the “Resistance 2020,” the “corona dictatorship” and face mask “muzzles” have been widely reported.

SPD Foreign Secretay Heiko Maas tweeted on Saturday, “Our constitution is celebrating its 71st birthday. It still gives us balanced guidelines in the #Corona crisis. Human dignity remains inviolable. Health must be protected. Demonstrations against # COVID19 measures are allowed. Anti-Semitism and radical right-wing agitation not!”

Discontent with the restrictions is, however, still a minority opinion. An Allensbach survey found this week that three-quarters of Germans are satisfied with government policy, confirming other polls in previous weeks. In terms of personal popularity, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder are in the lead.

Supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are an exception: 62% of them say that the federal government isn’t doing a good job. 76% of AfD supporters also believe “that the measures against the corona crisis are something completely different from what politics and the media say,” confirming that they are more prone to conspiracy theories.

The CDU/CSU Union continued to perform strongly in the polls, even picking up after two polls last week showed them dropping a few points: a Forsa poll put them back on an unassailable 40%, while the Greens fell even further, to 16% and the SPD continued to fail to profit – despite some of its politicians playing key and popular roles. An Insa poll had the CDU/CSU lower, but still at 37%, with the Greens at 18%.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz made clear his ambitions to be SPD Chancellor-candidate next year: he is being nominated on Friday as a parliamentary candidate for the Potsdam constituency. As the Welt wrote, “the nomination is a first small step on the way to a really big goal…. The 61-year-old Vice Chancellor would like to succeed Angela Merkel (CDU) asFederal Chancellor of a federal government led by the SPD in the autumn of next year.” There area also rumours within the SPD that the parliamentary group leader, Rolf Mützenich, wants to be a candidate for chancellor.

By the beginning of the week, there were under 10,000 active cases of Covid-19, three towns reported no infections at all and 94 counties or towns were reporting no new infections. The week-average R number was 0.78 on Thursday. However, three states – Hesse, Lower Saxony and Thuringia – showed a rise over the weekend in the number of infections, against the national downward trend, and there were also new outbreaks across the country traced back to restaurants, church services, refugee homes and care homes. In Berlin, the Health Minister reported on Monday that the R rate had been over the 1.20 limit 3 times in a row although it subsequently sank to under 1.

Health Minister Jens Spahn warned that, “Where there are regional outbreaks, we see a rapid virus spread. The federal states are responsible for intervening immediately.”

But the difference in opinions between different states and different politicians widened. At the weekend, it was reported that Thuringia’s Minister President, Left Party politician Bodo Ramelow, was planning to lift all restrictions, including social distancing and face masks, after 5th June. There was massive criticism of this proposal.

The Spiegel reported comments from a row of CDU and SPD ministers – including Health Minister Jens Spahn – and state leaders: this would be sending a ‘devastating signal’. ZDF reported that the risk remains great, citing a case in Hesse where 40 people were infected at a church service (the number was revised up to 100 on Sunday) and SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach criticised Ramelow, saying that “Thuringia is now questioning exactly the measures “to which one owes all success at the moment” and “there is no reason at all to drop what we have learned with difficulty – for example to keep your distance and wear a mask.” The next day, Lauterbach tweeted an a deutschlandfunk article about Sweden, which has a much higher mortality rate than its Scandanavian neighbours, which had lockdowns, with the comment, “The Swedish way must be considered a failure. Ramelow’s venture would be similarly dangerous.”

On Monday the Welt reported that Saxony is planning to follow suit – and in a surprise announcement the federal Corona Cabinet meeting was cancelled, apparently in reaction to Thuringia’s announcement, meaning that the draft resolution that was to be discussed was out of date. On Tuesday, the government met with state leaders and agreed to keep social distancing and face masks regulations until 29th June – but loosen the regulations governing contact numbers, so that groups of 10 people could meet (so far people have only been able to meet members of one other household). The government is also planning to lift travel restrictions with 31 European countries on 15th June – the 26 EU countries, plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

As more and more school classes opened, virologist Christian Drosten, who has been in a public row with other scientists and the tabloid newspaper Bild, again warned of the danger of aerosol transmission in schools and called for more testing of teachers. Health Minister Jens Spahn announced that school and kindergarten children, as well as teachers and staff will undergo preventative testing.

Drosten and Lauterbach have both received death threats because they are strong supporters of continuing restrictions: this week actor Til Schweiger helpfully stepped into the argument, tweeting that they should not get upset about that and should ‘take a chill pill.’ His tweet was quickly deleted.

On Wednesday, in a meeting with the heads of the eastern German states, Angela Merkel again warned that Germany was only at the beginning of the pandemic; she said that, “The fact that the federal and state governments worked together in the crisis has made a significant contribution to the success in coping with the crisis,” but reprimanded Thuringia’s Bodo Ramelow, saying “The messages were ambiguous…..I think the minimum distance is an obligation.”

Aid for industry and businesses

Help for apprentices was announced this week. Even before the corona crisis, there had been a decline in the number of apprentices, reported the Frankfurter Allgemeine, but during the crisis, more have been laid off. Representatives of the government, the federal states, the Federal Employment Agency, industry and trade unions agreed on a bonus for companies who accept apprentices in an ‘Alliance for Training’.

Lufthansa, which had grounded 95% of its fleet, announced it would be resuming flights to 20 destinations in June. The 9 billion bail out package, which will see the government take a 20% stake in the company, was finalised this week. However, on Wednesday the supervisory board refused to approve the state bailout package due to conditions imposed by the EU Commission. The Berliner Zeitung reported that the surrender of take-off and landing rights, would weaken the hub function at Frankfurt and Munich.

More on aid for different sectors agreed in committees and the Bundestag can be found in the Parliamentary Digest.

Will taxes rise?

The Tagesspiegel had an interesting article about the possible effect of social insurance contributions after corona. At the moment, total contributions paid by employees is just under 40% (pension contribution 18.6%, unemployment contribution 2.6%, statutory health insurance 14.6 % plus 1.1% average additional contribution, care 3.05%). The coalition government promised in 2018 that contributions would not rise above 40%, but this policy may not hold. Since the economic downturn and rising unemployment are leading to lower social security funds and there are increasing health and unemployment costs, argues the Tagesspiegel, it is possible that reserves will run out, or as a researcher from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) said, “The upholstery will be used up within months.”

Alternative for Germany at war

Following the expulsion of Andreas Kalbitz, leader in Brandenburg, the civil war in the AfD intensified.

Kalbitz, who had already been classified as right-extreme by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), had been investigated by the party for his links to a banned neo-Nazi organisation, the Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend (HDJ), and was thrown out of the party as a result two weeks ago. This set off a civil war, with Thuringia leader Björn Höcke (also classified by the BfV as right-extreme) announcing that he would “not allow” the split and destruction of the AfD, leader Jörg Meuthen attacking Höcke, co-leader Tino Chrupalla criticising Kalbitz’s expulsion and the Brandenburg party announcing that Kalbitz would nevertheless remain a member of the Brandenburg parliamentary faction. On Tuesday, Kalbitz said that he will fight his expulsion legally via the AfD’s Federal Arbitration, reported rbb.

Although the party announced two weeks ago that it had lost documents related to Kalbitz’s application to join the AfD (he was accused of committing to mention his extremist history when he joined), the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported this week that some documentation had emerged showing that he did not mention connections to the extreme right-wing milieu when he was admitted to the AfD.

Talk of a split in the party is growing, as it is felt that the pro and anti Kalbitz factions won’t find any agreement with each other. On top of this, more trouble for the party came from several states.

On Saturday, the Bavarian broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk reported that the Bavarian party was moving again its leaders Katrin Ebner-Steiner and Ingo Hahn; 12 of the group’s 20 Bavarian state parliament members had apparently signed a letter requesting a vote on their leadership as well as that of a deputy director of the AfD parliamentary group, Ferdinand Mang. At a parliamentary meeting on Wednesday, the proposal did not get the required two-thirds majority required. However, since 12 members voted against the leadership, this is a clear vote of no confidence, reported Bayerische Rundfunk: “Ebner-Steiner and Hahn no longer speak for the majority of the parliamentary group.”

In Hesse, an AfD member of parliament, Rainer Rahn, accused his party of spying on him, reported the Spiegel. Rahn said he had received a list of allegations against him from from an employee of the AfD parliamentary group. One was: “On the evening event of the Hesse Festival … Rainer Rahn separated himself from the AfD parliamentary group in a way that raised public awareness and spoke primarily to CDU politicians.” The list is headed with: “Fractional Misconduct Dr. Dr. Rainer Rahn, as of May 12, 2020.”

On Wednesday, the Weser Kurier in Lower Saxony reported that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had classified parts of the regional AfD as right-wing extremist. Interior Minister Boris Pistorius told the interior committee of the state parliament that the classification involved members of the now officially dissolved nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel: the Office for the Protection of the Constitution believes this involves 20 % of AfD members in Lower Saxony.

Finally. a legal battle was lost: on Friday, the Federal Constitutional Court rejected the AfD’s request to enable the MP Stephan Brandner to be reinstated as chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee. Brandner had been voted off as Chair in November after offensive tweets he had sent emerged.

Russian hacking

On Thursday, it was reported that the Foreign Office has invited Russian ambassador Sergei Nechayev for an interview to discuss the 2015 cyber-attack on the Bundestag, which was “strongly condemned.”

Two weeks ago, Angela Merkel said in the Bundestag 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, “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”.

Politically motivated crime

Last week, a new cabinet committee met – the committee against right-wing extremism and racism. The aim of the committee is to “develop an effective package of measures that will work in the long term to create a society free of right-wing extremism and racism… accordance with the values of the constitution.” The committee – as well as a new law designed to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime which is currently going through parliament – has been set up against the background of increasing concern about right-extremist violence in the country. This week, the Police Ciminal Statistics published figures showing that politically motivated crime is increasing: 41.000 crimes in 2019, a rise over 14%. Most of the crime came from either the extreme left or extreme right, with more than half coming from the right. Anti-semitic crime has increased by 13%; 93% of these crimes were committed by the far right.

Dominic Cummings

The outage in the UK over Dominic Cummings’ 260 mile trip to Durham during lockdown was widely reported in the German media. The Welt quote the Daily Mail headline, ‘What planet are they on?’ and the Stern’s headline was ‘Absolution for the Shadow Man.’ The Süddeustche Zeitung led on the civil service tweet (“Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”) and commented that “nothing makes the British more angry than unfairness.” The Berliner Zeitung reported that the affair is threatening the government because of the opposition from all sides and the Frankfurter Allgemeine that, “The (newly introduced) quarantine rule (for arrivals into the country) fits into the image of a government sometimes acting headlessly and absurdly. Since the pandemic began, omissions and unexplainable delays have been mixed with questionable priorities and overreactions. Some also suspect the genius Cummings to be behind this policy, but that might be overestimating the consultant’s influence.”

Following Cummings’s press conference on Monday, the Tagesschau reported a”storm of indignation” and commented, “How important Cummings is in the architecture of the Johnson government was also seen at this press conference in the afternoon: An adviser – not a Prime Minister, not even a Minister – who gives a press conference on his own behalf in the garden of the government headquarters.” ZDF pointed out that,”The accusation against Cummings is therefore not only for violating the rules, but also for arrogance……The man who helped set the rules think he didn’t need to follow them. And worse, his behaviour, many fear, is undermining the government’s authority and making it significantly more difficult to persuade the British to comply with regulations in the future.”

Volkswagen ruling

This week, the Federal Court of Justice on Monday ruled against Volkswagen, which in 2015 was found to have manipulated emissions tests. The court said that people who had purchased an VW automobile equipped with this software that are entitled to financial compensation. Around 60,000 individual cases against VW are currently pending across Germany, reported the Deutsche Welle.

Germany’s Presidency of the EU

Germany is due to take over the rotating Presidency in July: it has some big themes to address. Apart from economic recovery post-corona, commentators have also speculated that the government could use the Presidency to promote an EU-wide anti right-extremist and racism agenda, as has already been started internally with the Cabinet Commiteee against right-extremisms and racism. A focus on Brexit is questionable: an AP reported tweeted that Foreign Minister Heiko Mass devoted just 2 sentences to the Brexit negotiations in his speech to German ambassadors before Berlin takes over the 6-month EU presidency.

Constitutional Court in turmoil

The Federal Constitutional Court is one of the constitutional organs of state set up in the Grundgesetz (constitution) and its duty is to ensure that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany  is obeyed.  

The Zeit reported this week that the Court is under more tension than at any time in its history, following two major decisions in the last month: firstly, the judgement that the decision to buy bonds from the European Central Bank (ECB) was unconstitutional; and last week, the decision to declare the foreign intelligence service of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) to be unconstitutional. The Zeit reported that the ECB judgement is so controversial within the court that it is “catastrophic” and commented that,”Such rumblings within the court are more than unusual. (The Court) is usually extremely secretive; the discussions about judgments, which drag on for days, sometimes for weeks, are subject to strict secrecy; hardly ever anything gets out. Certainly no self-criticism.” Two long- term judges have recently retired, and there is now controversy over successors.

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