Germany’s Presidency of the European Union started this week and will have European recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as a central theme.
The EU is planning a 750 billion euro grant and loan rescue plan. However there are deep divisions in Europe about the size and scope of the rescue plan. The so-called “Frugal Four,” Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, are opposed to pooling member states’ debts.
On Monday, Merkel met with French President Macron to discuss the EU recovery plan, Next Generation EU, in a meeting the Tagesschau reported as sending a signal that Germany and France are close together in the crisis. Merkel stressed that Germany and France want to work together to “show that Europe is our future.”
On Wednesday at a video press conference with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen held to discuss the goals of Germany’s presidency, Merkel said that the EU was in the most difficult situation in its history. This echoed her statements in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung early in the week, when she said that the corona pandemic presented the EU with an unprecedented challenge. She argued that “in such an exceptional situation, the member states have a high interest in common ground”.
Merkel also spoke about the dramatic shift in German European politics, which had previously rejected common European debts. “In a crisis like this, everyone is expected to do what is necessary. In this case, what is necessary is something extraordinary.” Given the serious situation in many European countries,”It is imperative that Germany not only thinks of itself, but is ready for an extraordinary act of solidarity.” Merkel wants to use the rescue fund to prevent damage to European democracies. “Very high unemployment in a country can develop political explosive power there. The dangers to democracy would then be greater…..For Europe to exist, its economy must also exist.”
There is some criticism within Germany of Merkel’s support for the EU Commission plan. The Welt reported on the concern in the CDU Economic Council and small businesses that the planned European aid and reconstruction packages will threaten Germany with an “uncontrollable European spending policy that will result in tax increases.”
However, when Merkel spoke to the Bundesrat on Friday, the heads of the 16 states supported her programme. The Prime Minister of Hesse Volker Bouffier emphasised that Europe should not only be understood as an economic community, but also as a community of values: “If you want to represent these values externally, you have to live them internally.” Stephan Weil, Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, described the recovery of the economy as a central task of the Council Presidency. Support of affected states is proof of solidarity: “There can be no healthy German economy in a sick Europe.”
Apart from post-corona recovery, there are other critical issues to be addressed during the German Presidency, including Brexit, climate protection and the relationship with China. In the Suddeustche Zeitung interview, Merkel expressed concern about the lack of international cooperation in the face of the challenges represented both by the change in the USA and China’s growth: “We grew up knowing that the United States wanted to be a world power,” she said, “If the US should now voluntarily say goodbye to the role, we would have to think very fundamentally.”
This Financial Times article analyses the environmental issues the German Presidency is planning to address.
On Brexit, reported the Zeit, Merkel said, “Of course it would be in the interest of Great Britain and all member states of the European Union to get a regulated exit. But that presupposes that both sides want that.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government wanted to determine the country’s position on the EU. “Of course, it also has to live with the consequences – that is, with a less closely interlinked economy.”
In the Bundestag on Wednesday, Merkel warned that Europe must prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
There is considerable confidence in Germany in Merkel’s abilities to lead Europe through a tumultuous time. The Tagesschau summed it up like this: “Germany is the largest and financially strongest EU member state. Above all: Merkel is Merkel – by far the longest-serving boss on the European stage. She has experienced many European crises since her first presidency. Her experience and her pragmatic political style could be helpful in the current situation, says Günter Bannas, who has observed Merkel as a correspondent for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” for decades: “She accepts the challenges as they come.” The Tagesspiegel in an article entitled ‘Mission Possible’ agreed: “Merkel has been chancellor since 2005 and she knows what EU presidencies mean.”
Economic stimulus programme and corona aid
In a special session on Monday, the Bundestag approved a 130 billion euro economic stimulus programme which includes reduced VAT for 6 months and a bonus of 300 for each child receiving child benefit, as well as some tax measures. Details can be found in the Parliamentary Digest.
On Wednesday, the second supplementary budget was approved; the government is raising 218.5 billion euros of new debt this year as a result of the corona aid measures and the economic stimulus programme.
However the increased borrowing has been criticised by the Federal Audit Office, reported the Welt. The Welt reported that the Audit Office spoke of “inflated net borrowing” and said that there are sufficient reserves in the federal budget, which should have been used: “the federal budget controllers are criticising a bad habit of the government that crept in even before the Corona crisis: They like to bunker billions of euros in special pots, which the taxpayer hardly notices. The money is said to be for bad times. But when times are bad, like now, it is not touched….Politicians are already using the corona cover to create reserves for the period after the crisis, which they can then freely dispose of.” On Monday, the Audit Office gave evidence to the Bundestag’s Budget Committee (details can be found in the Parliamentary Digest).
The Frankfurter Allgemeine approved the measures: “Tax relief is better than doing nothing. And, unlike a pure car premium, it helps every industry, none is preferred. Everyone benefits in a similar way…..In addition, even if not everyone passes on the tax cut, it is not ineffective.” The Berliner Morgenpost pointed out the sheer scale of Germany’s fight against the economic impact of the virus, “According to IMF calculations, the Federal Republic has now mobilised around a third of its GDP for higher government spending, loans, guarantees and capital injections. Only Italy has gone to full steam in a comparable way. Japan, Great Britain, France, Australia and the USA are far behind in international comparisons.” While “in these dramatic times, there is no alternative to an economic stimulus package,” the paper points out that the Ifo Institute believes that this will only increase economic output by 0.2 percentage points or 6.5 billion euros, and that it is not certain companies will pass on tax benefits to consumers.
On Wednesday, some encouraging news came from the Federal Statistical Agency which reported that retail sales had gone up by a record 13.9 per cent from the previous month – the largest jump since the start of the data series in 1994. Sales were also 3.8 per cent higher than they were in the same month last year.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been struggling for the last few months. Following the murders of 9 people by a right-extremist in Hanau in February, the AfD was accused of complicity through encouraging hate and hate speech. Björn Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz, leadeers of the nationalist wing the Flügel, were labelled right-extreme by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and subsequently Höcke was forced to announce that he would dissolve the Flügel. Kalbitz was thrown out of the party following irregularities in his application, in which he had concealed his membership of a banned neo-Nazi organisation. This set off a civil war in the party, and legal action by Kalbitz against his expulsion, which he won. The party has clearly failed to put forward any constructive solutions during the corona crisis and has sunk by 5-6% in the polls.
This week, as the Spiegel reported, AfD is mentioned for the first time in the 2019 annual report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The BfV is focusing on the Flügel network and the “Young Alternative” (YES), which has been classified by the BfV as a suspected case, and since this spring the wing has been “proven extremist”. As the Spiegel comments, “The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution now counts significantly more people in Germany as “right-wing extremist potential.” In 2018 there were 24,100, now there are 32,080. This number could increase significantly if the whole party were to be classified as right-wing extremist.”
This is a risk for the AfD: the Brandenburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution has said that the entire national association should be monitored as a “suspected case” and in other states, where where the Flügel network is strong (particularly in the east of the country), there are loud calls for an observation by the secret service.
It was reported this week that the Bundeswehr secret service has found out that a reservist has collected private information about politicians and celebrities and has been classified as clearly right-wing extremist. On Monday, the intelligence service heads gave evidence to a parliamentary committee. The Military Shield Service (MAD) President, Christof Gramm, talked about the “new dimension” of right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr. More details can be found in the Parliamentary Digest.
On Friday, the Bundesrat passed the law to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime on the Internet, which had been passed in the Bundestag in June. More details can be found in the Parliamentary Digest.
An outbreak of corona at the slaugherthouse run by the Tönnies company in North-Rhine Westphalia pushed the R rate in Germany up to nearly 3 two weeks ago. Although the R rate is now steadily under 1 and the new outbreaks were regional, the number of active cases rose this week.
As a result of the Tönnies outbreak, the FT reported that 1,500 people were symptomatic, 7,000 were in quarantine and the entire Gütersloh district, where the plant is located, was forced back into lockdown. It noted that “Food plants, particularly abattoirs, were quickly recognised by scientists as prime Covid-19 incubators. Cold, wet environments help preserve virus-infected droplets — and production lines are ideal spreaders.”
On Sunday, it seemed that the infections in the Tönnies plant may be spreading into the wider community; the Tagesschau reported 107 new infections in the rest of the Gütersloh district – in people not directly related to the Tönnies company – were counted within the past seven days, increasing the number of positive tests in the rest of the population “noticeably”. The majority are showing no symptoms and so it is assumed that the current increase “is probably due to the strong expansion of testing of asymptomatic persons.”
The outbreak of infections has also provoked a debate in Germany about slaughterhouses and the meat processing industry.
Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner promised a meat industry review “From the stable to the plate” and has warned that consumers should not expect such low meat prices: “Meat shouldn’t be a luxury product for rich people. But it also can’t be everyday cheap trash.”
The meat industry had already been the subject of criticism: in May, following outbreaks of corona and accusations of slavery at meat processing plants across the country, which mostly have foreign workers, Hubertus Heil, Germany’s Minister of Labour, has promised that a new system will be in place by 2021. Heil said in May that the core of the evil is “this type of sub-sub-sub-entrepreneurship” in the industry. This week, in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag, Heil had said that the issue damages Germany abroad: “There is considerable debate in Europe about how badly we treat Romanian compatriots. The same applies to Bulgaria. We urgently need to change that.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine commented that, ” The more than 1,500 corona cases in the slaughterhouses in Tönnies and Wesjohann, which throw a glaring light on the working conditions of the many foreign agency workers in the industry, are not the biggest problem…..It will be much more difficult to remedy the decades of omissions in animal husbandry, so that meat and sausages become food that can be consumed without remorse. The gap that is opening up between the widespread desire among the population for better living conditions for pigs and cattle, chickens and turkeys on the one hand, and the reality in meat production on the other hand, is deep.”
Meanwhile the Deutsche Welle reported on a documentary film about meat processing Regeln am Band, bei hoher Geschwindigkeit (“Rules on the assembly line, at high speed”) which looks at the conditions under which Eastern European contract workers live and work in the Tönnies meat processing plants in North Rhine-Westphalia. The report notes that “Parallel worlds collide as the film looks deeply at the demand and consumption of the cheapest possible meat on the one hand, and the need for low-paid Eastern European temporary workers on the other.”
Additionally, the Deutsche Welle reported that Clemens Tönnies, the 64-year-old billionaire head of Tönnies, who has also chaired Premier League football club Schalke’s supervisory board since 2001 has faced severe criticism from the football club’s fans: accusations of racism last year, financial problems in the club and the link with the slaughterhouse caused fans to call for his resignation. By Wednesday this week, he had resigned. On Wednesday, it was also reported that the former SPD Minister of Economics, Sigmar Gabriel, worked as a consultant for Tönnies until May.
The CDU has seen a remarkable reversal of its fortunes since the beginning of the corona crisis. Although the latest Forsa poll showed both the CDU/CSU Union and the Greens each losing one percentage point (to 38% and 17% respectively), while the AfD and FDP each increased one percentage point (to 10% and 6%), the CDU/CSU Union is still up 12% since an historic low in March.
In April, the CDU was due to elect a new leader, following Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement that she would step down. However, due to the corona crisis, the party conference was postponed until December.
Health Minister Jens Spahn announced in February that he would run as deputy to Armin Laschet, Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). This was a surprise – Laschet was seen as the continuity candidate of ‘measure and middle’, while Spahn was a hope of the right of the CDU. However, since the would-be populist Friedrich Merz announced his intention to stand, the right-wing vote would have been split had Spahn stood.
But things have changed in the last few months.
During the Covid-19 crisis, Spahn’s political capital has risen exponentially, while Laschet has ruffled feathers with calls for an early exit to the lockdown and now presides over the first state to see a new lockdown: as the Zeit wrote, “One shines, the other stumbles. One can report that the Corona app developed under his aegis was downloaded overnight by 6.5 million people – a sign of trust and efficiency that politicians can normally only dream of. The other has to report that under his aegis over 1,500 slaughterhouse workers in the Gütersloh district have been infected with the corona virus, the largest hotspot in the republic. He has to announce the new lockdown.” However, “They are politically chained together. At the end of February, exactly on the day when the first corona case was reported in the Heinsberg district in the evening, the two CDU politicians declared themselves to be a team on the big stage of the federal press conference.”
How does Spahn break the partnership without being accused of opportunism or disloyalty? It is reported that he is considering this. As the Zeit wrote, “behind the scenes, they are looking for a way for Spahn to “break out of his captivity by December without losing face……Because Laschet is not doing well. Even before the renewed lockdown, he slumped in recent NRW surveys by a massive 19 percent (from 65 to 46 percent). In appearances on talk shows he comes across as agile and gruff. In the first weeks of the crisis in particular, he came across as an anti-authoritarian sceptic of preventive measures, and sometimes let it be known that the Federal Government did not seem to suffer particularly from the restriction of fundamental rights.”
Meanwhile, one of the lead candidates to be the CDU/CSU Union’s Chancellor candidate in 2021, Markus Söder, who is Minister President of Bavaria, warned against getting carried away by the impressive poll ratings, perhaps trying to dampen down expectations: ” We have seen many times that everything changes in federal elections,” he said, “The current poll ratings for the Union are due to the great approval of a Chancellor, who will then no longer be there.”
Since the polls show that the most likely outcome of the next election would be a CDU/CSU/Green Party coalition, the Zeit analysed which of the three candidates – Armin Lachet, Markus Söder and Friedrich Merz – would be most suitable. Noting that for many Christian Democrats, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is considered a great role model with his conservative-Green coalition government: “The government parties have headed their coalition with the motto “The best of both worlds”; a formula that could also be used to successfully campaign in Germany and sell the black and green reconciliation of economy and ecology.”
Berlin’s new anti-discrimination law
This week, a new law came into force in Berlin: The law is intended to make it easier to punish racism, for example by police officers. As well as origin and skin colour, authorities can be prosecuted for discriminating on the basis of gender, religion, belief, disability, age, sexual identity and social status. The law has caused controversy and interior ministers from other states have threatened to stop sending police to Berlin for operations. Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has also considered stopping federal police being used in operations in Berlin. The fear is that the law puts officials under general suspicion, especially since the onus is on them to prove there has been no discrimination. This week, the Welt reported that the Berlin police chief Barbara Slowik has warned that police investigations will become more difficult. For example, “Clan members will also test the law and automatically raise the charge of discrimination….There will definitely be more discussions in everyday control situations. In the future, we will have to document each assignment even more precisely. ”
Currently people can be tested without acute signs of illness, particularly in areas such as clinics, nursing homes, schools and day care centers. Health Minister Jens Spahn has also introduced a regulation that enables additional testing options at the expense of the health insurance companies.
While Berlin has announced that all kindergarten staff and teachers will be offered tests from July, Bavaria has announced that it will test all residents for corona, at the rate of 30,000 tests a day. Jens Spahn tweeted that the plan does not make sense. He wrote, “Test, test, test – but specifically…. This includes comprehensive preventive testing in health care and local outbreaks such as in Gütersloh. It also makes sense to test NRW twice a week in slaughterhouses. Simply testing a lot sounds good, but without a systematic approach it is not expedient, because it weighs in the wrong security, increases the risk of false-positive results and puts a strain on the available test capacity.”
Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder, who has taken a leading role in the corona crisis and is a popular choice amongst party members to be the next CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate, rejected Spahn’s comments, reported the Zeit. “This is the only serious option….we believe that testing is the only serious chance to break the chain of infection”.
The Zeit criticised the lack of a German-wide strategy. In a survey of health offices, the paper found that the small-scale responsibility structure leads to test approaches that are different everywhere. Not only does each office decide individually, different health authorities have different technology, amounts of people and money: around 61% of the offices feel that they are not adequately equipped for the challenges of the corona pandemic and some feel that their state government does not have a clear testing strategy.
Meanwhile, Frankfurt Airport opened a walk-in COVID-19 testing center on Monday in cooperation with airport operators Fraport and Lufthansa, in a scheme which is hoped to serve as a “blueprint to opening international borders,” reported the Deutsche Welle.
Paedophile ring discovered
Following investigation of child abuse cases in three towns in North-Rhine Westphalia, evidence of an international network of abusers involving 30,00 data traces such as IP addresses was exposed. NRW Minister of Justice Peter Biesenbach said that investigators had come across a ‘swamp’, with abusers exchanging advice in group chats and forums. Experts from the Cybercrime Central and Contact Point will now concentrate on finding out the identities of the people behind the pseudonyms.