News Digest 10th July

EU presidency

On Wednesday, Angela Merkel gave a speech to the EU parliament in Brussels setting out the programme for the German Presidency of the EU. Merkel spoke twice as long as the allotted time without having her microphone turned off after 10 minutes, as is usual practice – the Welt commented, “Merkel is Merkel – the only politician of global stature that Europe currently has. And so she is allowed to talk.” Merkel argued that if we want a European Union, the focus must be on fundamental rights, solidarity, answers to climate change and digitalisation, and Europe’s responsibility in the world. Calling for solidarity and unity in the face of the economic measures to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 and arguing in favour of the controversial 750 billion euro rescue fund, she said “I believe in Europe. I am convinced by Europe. No one can make it through this crisis alone. We are all vulnerable.” 

On the issues of nationalism and populism, she argued that, “You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation….The limits of populism and denial of basic truth are being laid bare. Democracies need truth and transparency. That sets Europe apart and that is what Germany will stand for during its Presidency.”

The Spiegel commented that at this point applause broke out for the first time, 18 minutes into Merkel’s speech: “Because they read the sentences as an attack on Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. For all those who do not take the virus seriously and put their citizens in mortal danger – or, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, use the fear of the virus to restrict civil liberties.”

Focus argued that, “The Chancellor has thus set a new, surprising focus that could cause her much more trouble. The rulers in Budapest and Warsaw in particular may have heard this with displeasure. This was Angela Merkel’s warning, even if they were not mentioned.”

CDU leadership and the ‘K’ question

The CDU is due to elect its new leader in December. Current chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced in February that she would step down, after only just a year in the job, and a party conference was planned to elect the new chair in April. However, this was cancelled due to the corona pandemic. The three leadership candidates are North Rhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Armin Laschet, and MPs Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen (both also from North-Rhine Westphalia).

At the same time, all parties will soon be selecting their Chancellor candidates for the federal election next year – who this is to be is the K (Kanzler) question. The leader of the party is not necessarily the same person as the Chancellor candidate. The CDU/CSU Union can choose a candidate from either party, although in practice a Bavarian CSU candidate is rare – however this time, Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder seems a possibility.

In a side swipe at rival Armin Laschet, Söder gave an interview this week in which he said that a prospective Chancellor candidate must have proven himself in the Covid-19 crisis. Those who fail to do so have “no moral claim to leadership……Only those who master crises….can shine.”

Söder and Laschet have clashed over the handling of corona measures and Laschet is now presiding over outbreaks of the virus in NRW.

Söder did not declare he would seek to be the Union candidate: “My place is in Bavaria. But I want to make my contribution as Prime Minister of Bavaria and CSU party chairman that we are successful in Germany.”

This prompted a Tagesschau analysis to comment, “Officially, CSU leader Söder is not pushing to become chancellor…. Nevertheless, he is constantly under discussion as a candidate for chancellor. How does he do it? Markus Söder says that there is always talk about the ‘K question’, about the vacant chair in the CDU – that is really not his problem. “Look, I’m not having the debate. People keep talking about me.” There is constant talk, but only because Söder himself does not keep quiet.”

Söder is the favourite amongst voters, ahead of the CDU leadership candidates. A ZDF Politbarometer this week showed that whereas in March, 30 percent of all those surveyed believed that Söder was suitable for the office of Chancellor, now 64% of all respondents and 78% of Union supporters say that he has what it takes to become Chancellor. The SPD Finance Minister, Olaf Scholz, comes second with 48%.

Merz, on the other hand, reported the Tagesspiegel, said that he did not believe Söder would stand: “He has said several times that his place is in Bavaria, where he is doing a great job in the Corona crisis…. Historically, it has been the case so far that the CSU provided the joint candidate for chancellor when the CDU was dissatisfied with its own leadership. It was like that in 1980, it was like that in 2002, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be like that in 2021. ” A Süddeustche Zeitung article commented that Merz unerringly sidelined himself when he contradicted Söder’s assertions that only a person who had proven himself in the Corona crisis and who is experienced could become Chancellor: “Merz does not meet either requirement. He resigned as political leader in 2002 and left the Bundestag in 2009. He has experienced great crises as a spectator. “

As discussed in the News Digest last week, there are signs that Health Minister Jens Spahn may want to break away from or change the surprise agreement he made in February that he would run as deputy to Laschet. Since the Covid-19 crisis started, Spahn’s popularity has improved dramatically and Laschet’s has gone in the other direction. The Tagesschau noted this dilemma this week: “(Laschet) started his candidacy with a brilliant move, by joining a team with Jens Spahn. Then Corona came and Laschet started to lurch. Söder is not the only one who has criticised his crisis management. In addition, he has weak poll ratings ​​and there are persistent rumours that Laschet might end up giving Spahn the lead role. After all, Spahn was able to take advantage of the corona crisis and prove himself as Minister of Health. However, a withdrawal from Laschet would amount to a declaration of bankruptcy, which would not help consolidate his support in North Rhine-Westphalia.”

Gender equality

The Cabinet agreed a cross-departmental, federal strategy to achieve equality between men and women this week, ‘Strong for the Future’, as a result of a long-running initiative by the SPD’s Minister for Family Affairs, Franziska Giffey. In the future, equality should be given greater consideration in all federal laws and funding programs: Giffey’s template for this, reports the Zeit, aims to promote what the constitution prescribes, namely to promote the “effective enforcement” of equality between women and men.

A main goal is equal pay. Giffey said that, ” A more than 20% wage gap leads to a more than 50% pension gap between women and men.” The strategy also aims to strengthen the compatibility of family, care and work, as well as promote equal career opportunities and participation of women and men in management positions. Social professions should also be strengthened as attractive and flexible careers. More details can be found in this Deutsche Welle article in English and there is a video which discusses the issues too.

The Tagesschau (noting that Giffey chose an unusual setting for the presentation of her so-called equality strategy – background posters that strongly resemble romantic comedy film posters) pointed out that the further up the hierarchy in a company, the lower the proportion of women there are and reported that an investigation by the Allbright Foundation in the autumn of 2019 had found that there was not a single woman on the board in 103 of 160 listed companies.

The CDU’s Structural and Statute Commission met this week to discuss a binding quota for women and more rights for homosexuals, as par of a modernisation process for the party. 50% of party positions are to be given to women by 2023. In addition there are plans to make the LSU group – the advocacy group for lesbians and gays in the CDU and CSU – to be officially recognized as a “special organization” of the party.

The quota measure has been controversial in the party and still needs to be decided by the CDU party conference in December. The Zeit reported that former Minister for Women and President of the Bundestag Rita Süssmuth has warned the party not to obstruct the women’s quota at the party conference; if the CDU continues to postpone this topic, “it will harm the party,” she said. Süssmuth also appealed to the leadership candidates – all male – to campaign for the women’s quota.

Extremism and racism

The annual report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) was published this week.

In a press conference to present the report with the head of the BfV, Thomas Haldenwang, Interior Minister Horst Seehoer said that far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism are the greatest threat to security in Germany, and that the threat is increasing.

Politically motivated crimes have risen in the last year. In 2018 there were 20,431 right wing politically motivated crimes: this figures rose to 22,342 in 2019. In 2018 there were 7,961 left wing politically motivated crimes; this figure rose to 9,849 in 2019.

In its report, the BfV said of right-extremism,”The detection of small groups and individual offenders poses particular challenges for the security authorities.” This trend is confirmed by two events: the murder of the Kassel CDU politician Walter Lübcke in June 2019, and the attempted attack on the synagogue in Halle in October 2019 which resulted in two fatalities. Attacks with firearms clearly show the risk of gun ownership among right-wing extremists – in 2019, almost 900 right-wing extremists had such a weapon license. The sending of threatening emails and so-called “death lists” or “enemy lists” are also a risk.

The BfV counted a total of 32,080 right-wing extremists in Germany last year – an increase of 30% compared to the previous year; the rise is because the BfV now include members of the AfD youth organization “Junge Alternative” and the AfD’s nationalist wing, the Flügel, which has been dissolved but is still active as a network.

Left wing extremism is also a great concern, and has been seen in attacks by small militant groups in Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Hamburg. The number of violent left-wing extremists is growing. The BfV reports 9,200 militants, an increase of over 20% in the last five years. There are 33,500 people on the left-wing extremist scene as a whole, compared to 27,200 in 2014.

As far as Islamic extremism is concerned, the report notes that the defeat of Islamic State has in no way reduced the risk of further attacks: “The restructuring of IS from a quasi-state actor to a classic underground terror group has apparently been completed.” The BfV is keeping an eye on the more than 300 returnees from Syria and Iraq.

As far as spying is concerned, the reports notes Russian activity, especially never-ending cyber attacks. The activities of intelligence agencies in China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Jordan and Syria are also described.

A Deustche Welle video, which discusses the political implications of the report, can be found here.

There has been criticism in Germany over the reported cancelling of a report on racial profiling by German police forces; Horst Seehofer was reported as saying that it was ‘not needed’ According to the Zeit, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recommended a study should be carried out and it looked like it was going ahead. Both the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Justice seemed to be aboard, but then the Interior Ministry announced that it would not do the study on the grounds that it was superfluous since racial profiling is prohibited in police practice: “Neither the federal police laws nor the relevant regulations and decrees permit such unequal treatment of people.” Now, reported the Zeit, SPD Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht has said that she would like the study to go ahead and the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency has also insisted that it takes place.

During a debate in parliament last week about riots in Stuttgart which took place a fortnight ago, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel spoke of “uncontrolled immigration,” through which many “young men, primarily from the Islamic culture,” who despise the state, came to Germany. Cem Özdemir, a Green Party MP for Stuttgart hit back at the AfD, saying, “Your business model is not designed to solve problems, but to spread fear and hate,” and, “Your idiotic chatter disgusts me,” reported the Welt. He followed that with a sentence that caused laughter amongst the AfD parliamentary group: “I myself know what racism feels like.” Özdemir replied that he hoped that as few young people as possible would hear such laughter.

Meanwhile the Berlin transport authority, the BVG, announced that it would be changing the controversial name of an U-bahn station – Mohrenstrasse – or Moor Street – to Glinkastraße (after the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka). The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that many groups have been calling for the renaming of Mohrenstraße for years. These groups are supported by the Greens and the Left, but opposed by others, including the CDU, which argues that it is a historical name meaning a North African Muslim. The Berlin AfD parliamentary group leader accused the BVG’s of “leading obedience” and write on twitter, “I’m scared of these iconoclasts and zeitgeist opportunists.” Following the announcement, it was reported that the BVG would not use the Glinkastraße name, after accusations that the composer had been anti-semitic.

The new military commissioner, SPD politician Eva Högl, said this week that she wants to consider the reintroduction of conscription. The 2011 suspension of conscription was a “huge mistake”, she said, and even before the decision was made to suspend it, there were fears that right-wing extremism would develop more in a professional army than in a conscription army. The Bundeswehr does very well “when a wider section of society does military service for a while,” she said, and this makes it more difficult for right-wing extremism to spread. The Handelsblatt reported that Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has spoken out against a return to the old form of compulsory military service and announced a new voluntary service: from 2021, a service entitled “Your Year for Germany” should be introduced, in which young people who opt for military service should receive six months of basic military training in their state and then be provided with reserve services close to home for six months. Högl’s suggestion has been opposed not only by opposition parties, but also within the SPD and from current SPD leaders Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.

The Alternative for Germany, which has descended into civil war in the last month, is also reported to be having problems in its Berlin party. The Tagesspiegel reported this week that MPs in Berlin’s state parliament have turned against parliamentary group leader Georg Pazderski. In a letter seen by the Tagesspiegel which was signed by 9 of the group’s 22 members, MPs talked about a “climate of mistrust and destructiveness” and said that there is no longer a “basis for constructive and trusting cooperation.” There was even talk of split in the party, although that was warned to be unhelpful shortly before the election which will take place in the autumn of 2021.

Meanwhile, in Bavaria AfD MP Stefan Löw was reprimanded on Tuesday for wearing a martial-looking gas mask at the lectern in the state parliament as a way of protesting the requirement to wear a face mask. State Vice President Alexander Hold condemned the incident as improper behaviour with the aim of ridiculing the State Parliament. Löw did not comply with the request to remove the mask and was not allowed to speak.

China

Last week, the politikonline Parliamentary Digest reported on the distancing of the SPD from coalition partners the CDU over China, as well as a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the role of China. The week, criticism of the government over China spread inside and outside Germany. CDU leadership contender Norbert Röttgen, who is head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee criticised the government over its response to the new national security law: “What the German government said about Hong Kong was the absolute minimum, and it just wasn’t enough.” As the FT reported, last week Merkel emphasised the need to “seek dialogue” with China, on the basis of “mutual respect” and a “relationship of trust” – but people across the German political spectrum said that instead of stressing the need for co-operation, she should have condemned Beijing outright over the law. 

Rehabilitation of gay soldiers

The Ministry of Defence said this week that  it will present a draft bill in September to address the injustices done to soldiers who had been subjected to punitive measures by military disciplinary courts because of homosexuality. A law preventing homosexuals from becoming professional soldiers or taking on leadership positions remained in force until 2000 and the Deutsche Welle reported that Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has told groups representing LGBT+ personnel in the Bundeswehr that homosexual members of the German army had been unjustly treated for decades.

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