Parliamentary Digest 29th May

A round up of what’s going on in the Bundestag, Bundesrat and state parliaments

Sectors in trouble: aid demanded

Post-corona theatre seating = lower sales

The Culture and Media Committee heard that cultural organisers in Germany are facing a “disastrous” situation due to the corona pandemic, with sales losses of up to 80 % this year.

Many event organisers may have to file for bankruptcy by the end of the year and even in those areas of the industry that are slowly starting to operate again, hygiene and social distancing requirements are leading to massive further sales losses because too few tickets can be sold.

The Tourism Committee heard some dramatic and heartfelt appeals for help through a state rescue fund for the industry this week; representatives said that despair as a result of existence-threatening losses due to the consequences of the corona crisis is growing.

The Committee was told that a rescue fund must be set up “very, very quickly.” One industry representative said, “We need money, that unites us all…. We already have suicides in the industry.” Another complained that the 11,000 travel agencies and 3,000 tour operators in Germany are currently “legally obliged to work free of charge for months.”

Similarly, the Sports Committee heard evidence that about 290 sports teams in the professional and semi-professional area are in great economic need because of the corona crisis and may be at risk of bankruptcy. While first and second division football teams have secured television revenue by re-starting ‘ghost games’ (games played without spectators), other team sports do not have this opportunity. Handball, basketball, volleyball and ice hockey clubs, and also the women’s soccer league and the 3rd division men’s soccer league, are primarily not financed by television money, but by audience revenue; many teams may survive the summer, but not a winter without spectator. A representative of Teamsport Deutschland demanded that clubs that have lost viewer revenues due to official requirements be offered government aid in the form of non-repayable grants.

The Economy and Energy Committee heard views on helping mitigate the effects of the corona crisis, including proposal for a reduction in electricity costs for the both businesses and private households and the expansion of the digital infrastructure.

Aid approved

Restaurants and catering

On Wednesday, the Bundestag sent the government’s bill to implement tax relief measures to deal with the Corona crisis (Corona Tax Assistance Act, 19/19379) to the Finance Committee. The draft law plans to reduce the VAT rate for restaurant and catering services from 19% to 7%,. The reduction will be in force until June 30, 2020. The supply of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages is exempt from the tax reduction. The Corona Tax Assistance Act also provides for tax relief for employer’s grants for short-time work benefits and includes further regulations on sales tax and conversion tax law.

The Committee added a requirement that the payment of a so-called corona bonus by employers up to an amount of 1,500 euros should be tax-free. On Thursday, the Bundestag adopted bill.

Wage replacement for parents

On Thursday, the Bundestag decided that working parents who have to take care of their children at home because of the corona crisis should should no longer be paid for six weeks, but for up to 20 weeks:. Each parent can claim wage replacement payment for ten weeks and single parents should be supported for up to 20 weeks.

Regional recovery

The federal government is planning a massive economic stimulus program to be launched in June; state governments will also launch heir own programmes to complement this. North Rhine Westphalia announced a ‘Digitalisation and Innovation Package’ to strengthen sustainable qualitative growth, which will focus on public investment, 1.8 billion of investment in digital infrastructure including 5G and fibre optics and investment in digital education. The state government noted that the decline in economic output as a result of the corona crisis ” is likely to be at least as significant this year as in the 2008/2009 financial crisis. A double-digit fall cannot be ruled out” and argued that, “now is the time to jump forward. As the state government, we are doing everything we can to make the acutely needed economic stimulus a real modernisation program for North Rhine-Westphalia.

In Berlin, the leaders of the SPD, Left and Green ruling coalition have agreed on six billion euros of borrowing to finance the losses brought about by the corona crisis. The money is to be paid back over 27 years, starting in 2023, the money is to be repaid over a total of 27 years, reported the Berliner Morgenpost.

EU recovery

This week, the EU Commission announced plans to channel 500 billion euros in non-repayable grants and 250 billion euros in loans for economic reconstruction after the corona crisis. This will be financed through debts on behalf of the European Union, which must be paid through the EU budget by 2058. Last week, Angela Merkel President Macron had suggested a reconstruction fund for grants amounting to 500 billion euros. The heads of government of Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden (the “Frugal Four”) have argued that member states should only receive loans that they have to repay. These plans were debated in the Bundestag on Thursday.

The issues of on the EU incurring debt, and of non-repayable grants were controversial. The FDP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff politicians argued that the EU plan would not only create new budgetary risks for the federal budget, it would also represent a major reorganization of the EU’s financial constitution. For the AfD, Peter Boehringer said that, “Macron wants to become more powerful” and argued that the EU is prohibited from financing its expenses with credit. However, SPD member Markus Töns said that the combination of loans and grants is an expression of European solidarity: “Because we are part of a common economic area and 60 percent of our exports go to the EU”, contrary to all myths, it is in the German state’s own interest that the EU neighbours are also doing well.

CSU ministers under attack over failed car toll

In 2013, then CSU leader (and current Interior Minister) Horst Seehofer made implementing a car toll on German motorways a condition of entering a new governing coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU. Whereas German motorists would have had the cost of the toll deducted from road taxes, this would not have applied to foreign motorists; and for this reason, the European Court of Justice ruled that the toll was against EU law in 2019. The toll was due to have come into force in October 2020. The Ministry of Transport under Andreas Scheuer (CSU), concluded contracts in 2018 to collect and control the toll – before there was legal certainty. Eventim and the Austrian toll company Kapsch have demanded more than 560 million euros in damages from Germany for lost profits. The opposition therefore accused Scheuer of making serious mistakes at the expense of taxpayers.

In a Committee of Inquiry held this week, Seehofer said he had ‘done everything right’ with the planning for the toll, which had also been approved by the Bundestag and Bundesrat; but one of the witnesses, former Federal Minister of Transport Peter Ramsauer (CSU) said that he had warned against the wording of the law that no vehicle owner in Germany should be burdened, which he said would be difficult under European law.

Right-wing extremism

New Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragte)

On Wednesday, the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, SPD’s Eva Högl, was sworn in. Her appointment had caused some controversy, since she had never had anything to do with the Bundeswehr. Högl called for stronger measures against right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr, saying “We really need to discuss the issue of right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr very thoroughly, very fundamentally and in general.”

Eva Högl (left) with Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

Reichsbürger in Rhineland-Palatinate

A written answer from the Rhineland-Palatinate government about people suspected of being Reichsbürger – far-right groups which do not recognise the legitimacy of the Federal government, which were banned by Fderal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in March – said that the state government would make sure that they did not receive weapons licences. The answer stated that 62 cases of “Reichsbürger citizens with weapons permits” had been recorded in the state and revocation proceedings had been initiated by the relevant weapons authorities. In 23 cases, these relate to so-called small arms licenses (permission to carry rifle weapons) and in 39 cases relate to permission to carry weapons as marksmans and hunters.

Terrorist attacks in Germany

An answer to an AfD questions about the Europol terrorism report (19/19341) “EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report” stated that “The attacks / planning of attacks in recent years have shown that Germany is still the focus of Islamist terrorism. The risk of right-wing terrorist attacks is still high. ” The draft law to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime. the government said, is reacting to hate crime, which is particularly noticeable in the area of ​​right-wing extremism.

Islamophobia

An answer to a minor question from the Left Party (19/17613) gave the information that a total of 190 Isalamophobic offences were reported to the Federal Government in the fourth quarter of 2019 in Germany. During this period, nine people were injured and two people killed.

Jewish military chaplaincy

On Thursday, the Bundestag approved a law for Jewish chaplains in the armed forces. The first rabbis in the military are due to start work this year. Initially, 10 will be employed (compared to around 100 Protestant and 80 Catholic chaplains, but there is provision for the number to increase. The Tagesschau reported that it is estimated that there are around 94,000 Christians and around 300 Jews in the Bundeswehr. The number of Muslims in the military is estimated at 3,000. However, there are not yet any Muslim religious representatives’ although talks are in progress.

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 last 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.

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 111 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.

This week, 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 was be discussed at a hearing of the Interior and Home Affairs Committee. 

The draft law aimed to to maintain the proportional element, but to significantly reduce the number of overhang mandates by changing the the ratio of list and direct mandates to about 60 to 40 in favor of the list mandates. In addition, the number of constituencies is to be reduced from 299 to 250, while the total number of seats will be increased from 598 to 630. In addition, according to the draft law, “an advance allocation of seats to the parties in the countries” should be dropped, since this so-called seat quota procedure “leads to an unnecessary need for compensation for other parties”.

Experts at the committee had some very different opinions, with some seeing no constitutional problems and others that the elimination of the seat quota procedure would go against the federal structure of the party political system.

AfD motion on headscarves

On Friday, an Alternative for Germany (AfD) motion “to prevent wearing the children’s headscarf in public daycare centres and schools” (19/19522) was debated. The AfD called on the government to examine the extent to which it is constitutionally possible to prohibit the wearing of headscarves by children in public daycare centres and schools. The ‘problem’ of the headscarf should be addressed “as a political-ideological symbol” in children. The Bundestag referred the request for guidance to the Home Affairs Committee.

ECB bond puchase

At the beginning of May, the Federal constitutional court passed a judgement that the European Central Bank’s public sector bond purchases may unconstitutional. Following that, 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. The plaintiffs who brought the ECB 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. The Zeit reported this week that the Court is under more tension than at any time in its history, following that decision, as well as one on spying on foreign citizens abroad.

This week, the European Committee examined the issue: experts accused the judges of over-stepping their jurisdiction and warned that there could be a further escalation of the conflict. One warned that the decision was an attack on the independence of the ECB and the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which had approved the bond purchases in 2018 and would lead to further lawsuits. Another spoke of a “misjudgment” in which the Federal Constitutional Court wanted to contain European powers, another recommended that the Bundestag should request a check, which would clarify that it did not wish or intend to intervene in the toolbox of the ECB and one warned that the judgment had the potential to trigger a “major crisis.”

Basic Pension

On 15th May, the SPD’sbasic pensiondraft law was debated for the first time. The basic pension will be an additional payment that will come on top of a retiree’s pension payment if, despite having paid into the system for decades, a person would have a pension which did not cover the cost of living. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz confirmed in April that the basic pension will come in as planned on 1st January 2021, despite the corona crisis. The CDU/CSU parlaimentary leader, Ralph Brinkhaus, said the bill had no chance of going through parliament since there was no agreement on how the pension was to be funded. The bill passed the first reading, however, and was referred to the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, which met this week.

While some experts welcomes the idea of the basic pension, there was dispute about implementation and structure. One said that the fact that the examination would take up to two years would not measure people’s current basic pension requirement; therefore it should be a universal credit, which would balance out though tax declarations. Another said that the expenditure and income of the basic pension is disproportionate: he calculated that recipients would increase their income on average by around 80 euros per month, which would not make a big difference to many people.

One of the findings of the committee was that although the law is due to be introduced on January 1, 2021, the first notifications will probably not go to the pensioners concerned until July 2021 and it will probably take until the end of 2022 until all 26 million existing pensions have been checked. The director of the German Federal Pension Insurance Association (DRV Bund), which is already working on the implementation of the basic pension said that 1700 additional jobs have to be created and the introduction of the basic pension will cost 200 million euros in the first year.

On Thursday, Green Party and Left Party motions proposing minimum pensions were rejected in the Bundestag.

Upskirting

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Consumer Protection considered improving personal protection in the production and distribution of image recordings. The government had proposed (19/17795, 19/15825) that the creation and transmission of an image that either grossly reveals a deceased person, or the creation and transmission of an image of sight-protected parts of the body – such as upskirting – should become punishable. The use and accessibility of such images for third parties should also be recorded. The committee heard that the existing criminal law has so far not adequately covered upskirting. according to the current legal situation, upskirting cannot be prosecuted, or only in very rare cases.

Adoption law

The Family, Senior citizens, Women and Youth Committee approved a draft government law (19/16718) about adoption: In the case of the adoption, a legal claim to advice and support from adoption agencies will apply to all those involved in the future. The law stipulates that the adoption agencies provide age-appropriate information about the adoption of the child and discuss with the parents of origin and the adoptive parents whether and how an exchange of information or contact between them can take place in the interests of the child. Follow-up support and mandatory advice for stepchild adoptions will be introduced for all those involved in an adoption. The law will tighten the requirements for foreign adoptions, which in the future will always be mediated by an adoption agency; the idea is to prevent unaccompanied adoptions from abroad by always arranging them through a specialist agency and by introducing a mandatory recognition procedure for foreign adoption decisions in Germany. The law was approved in the Bundestag on Thursday.

Asylum figures

A government response (19/19333) to a minor question from the Left Group stated that by the end of 2019, 43,465 foreigners entitled to asylum had been registered in 2019 the Central Register of Foreigners (AZR). The three main nationalities were Turkey with 11,715 asylum seekers, Syria with 7,232 victims and Iran with 5,762. The total number of people with refugee protection registered at the AZR at the turn of the year was 702,784. The main nationality in these cases was Syria with 379,045 people, Iraq with 106,412 and Afghanistan with 47,684.

National Strategy for the Reduction and Innovation of Sugar, Fats and Salt in Finished Products

The Food and Agriculture Committee took evidence about the government’s National Strategy for the Reduction and Innovation of Sugar, Fats and Salt in Finished Products. The committee heard that experience from abroad showed that voluntary commitments without clear guidelines and sanction options “are generally unsuccessful” and that nutrition in Germany was still far from what the German Society for Nutrition recommended. On average, German food is still far too high in energy and fat, and contains too much sugar and starch in highly processed foods; more than 20 percent of all deaths, according to one witness, can be attributed to “poor nutrition in the broadest sense.” Another witness was concerned about sustainability and an other that an educational strategy was required, with a “fundamental revision of the curriculum”.

Supervisory change in the financial sector

In the Finance Committee, the organizations of financial investment brokers and financial advisors protested strongly against plans by the government to transfer the supervision of the industry from trade offices and chambers of commerce to the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin), which means that it will be centralised.

Anti-Discrimination law in Berlin

Next week, the SPD-Left Party-Green ruling coalition in the Berlin state government are planning to introduce a new anti-discrimination law under which people can claim damages for discrimination by government agencies. The law provides for a reversal of the burden of proof; state officials will have to prove that they have not treated citizens in a discriminatory manner. This plan was criticised by Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer this week as ‘insane’.

Thuriniga executive elected

Following the political crisis in Thuringia in February, the government has finished electing its executive – like the Bundestag Presdium, the President is a member of the majority party – in this case, the Left Party, and the 5 Vice Presidents comes from each of the other parties – the Green, SPD, CDU, FDP and AfD. Unlike the Bundestag Presidum, an AfD member has been elected as Vice President in Thuringia – the national AfD party has consistently had its candidates for Vice President voted down.

Calendar and information

Information about what is happening in the Bundestag on a daily basis (including in committees and parliamentary questions) can be found in the ‘Heute im Bundestag’ section of the Bundestag website (in German) here. The timetable can be found here and agendas and sittings under ‘Tagesordnungen und Sitzungsverlauf’ here.

The next sitting week for the Bundestag is 15.06. – 19.06.

The next plenary session of the Bundesrat is Friday, 5th June. Information about the plenary sessions of the Bundesrat can be found here and information about its responsibilities here.

A political glossary can be found here.

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