News Digest 9th October

The UK: a populist, rogue state?

Several media outlets this week focused on Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit and the corona pandemic.

The Welt quoted a speech from Lord Neuberger, former chairman of the UK Supreme Court, who criticized Johnson’s Single Market Act for not only giving the government power to breach contracts, but also stipulating that these provisions are non-appealable in court. “If you rob the people of the right to bring the government to justice, you are in a dictatorship, in a tyranny,” said the Lord. “That could turn out to be a very steep track.” He is right. Take back control! Was the slogan of the Brexiteers. Now they do not want to be controlled by the people and measured against the law. The case has a lesson in store: populists may rightly invoke democratic deficits and invoke popular sovereignty. If they have power, whether in Budapest, Warsaw, Washington or London, they show how little democracy, justice and law are worth to them.” A Zeit article also argued that, “The two oldest democracies – America and Great Britain – show how dangerous populism is.”

An opinion piece in the Deustche Welle asked whether the UK was turning into a rogue state: “The government isn’t just ramming through illegal changes to Brexit bills that they campaigned on less than a year ago. More insidious is the “Overseas Operations Bill,” which effectively decriminalizes torture by British soldiers if they aren’t prosecuted within five years….Some will point out that British lawbreaking is nothing new. From colonialism to the Iraq war and the war on terror, the relationship of the UK to international law has always been murkier than assumed.”

“But in the past, the country was bound by conventions, treaties, and alliances that it is now all too happy to jettison. Even senior US politicians have expressed concern about the Brexit bill’s ramifications for the Good Friday agreement that ended the troubles in Northern Ireland. This new isolation and lawlessness, combined with its political strength, makes the government more unpredictable than ever.”

As the Brexit trade deal deadline approached, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that a no-deal Brexit would be irresponsible, against the background of the corona pandemic and that the EU’s door was still open to Britain.

The Tagesschau said that, “The British delegation appears self-confident as usual,” but quoted an economist who argued that, “Boris Johnson’s government is not in a comfortable position. The EU is a trading superpower; only the USA has comparable clout in global trade.”

Describing Johnson’s party conference speech, a Zeit article wrote that, “Johnson presented astonished party friends this week with the utopia of a “new Jerusalem” for the United Kingdom: a future paradise after the green revolution…….Johnson hardly commented on reality: Not a word about the British escapades in the fight against corona, not a syllable about Brexit. The exit from the EU has served its purpose as a means of propaganda.”

Last week, the Taggesschau reported that in the UK, “The situation is serious, but Johnson and his administration have long since become a laughing stock. And the target of massive criticism from their own party.” This week, the Süddeustche Zeitung contrasted Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the corona pandemic with Boris Johsnon’s: “Since the outbreak of the pandemic, she has been skilfully driving the prime minister in front of her. Sturgeon made decisions that Johnson could only imitate. It looks like he will also be imposing pub closings in the coming week – at least in those parts of northern England where the number of infections has risen dramatically. That might suit Sturgeon. Once again, she would be the one who dictated the course to the hesitant prime minister.”

Racism and Right-extremism

An attack on a young man outside a synagogue in Hamburg this week raised alarm nearly a year after of an attack by a white supremacist targeted a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. The police  said on Monday they were treating an attack as attempted murder. There were 2,032 anti-Semitic attacks in Germany in 2019, a 13% increase on the year before, and as the Deustche Welle reported on Thursday, many Jewish people do not feel safe in Germany.

Politicians, who last week heard again in the budget debate that right-extremism is “the greatest threat in our country,” condemned the attack. A statement by Merkel’s spokesmen said that, “Such an attack is repulsive, no matter what investigations about the motivation and the condition of the perpetrator might show….And it must be clearly stated by everyone in this society: in Germany, every such act is a disgrace,” while Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said, ” Once again, we have to witness a terrible act of violence against a Jewish citizen. The hatred against Jews is a disgrace for our country.”

On the anniversary of the Halle attack, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a speech in which he called for people to take a stand against anti-Semitism. He said that the constitution entails an obligation for every individual to stand up if the human dignity of others is disregarded. Anti-Semitism is a seismograph for the state of democracy. The more openly it is expressed, the more strongly values, tolerance and respect for human dignity are challenged.

Horst Seehofer, Germany’s Interior Minister, who has consistently refused an investigation into racism in the police, despite revelations of police officers sharing extremist content in group messages, this week said there was no structural problem with racism in the police force. He used evidence from an Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) report on racism in the civil service to downplay the issue. The BfV report found that less than 1% of Germany’s police forces, security agencies and military personnel display far-right world views and sympathies; Seehofer claimed that this means that the very overwhelming majority of security employees abide by the constitution: “This also means that we have no structural problem with right-wing extremism among security forces at the federal state level.”

For this, Seehofer was roundly condemned: NTV for example, found his conclusions ‘absurd’ and wrote that his conclusion is that “Racist, anti-Semitic, right-wing extremist ideas only seeped into the heads of the security officers in homeopathic doses” and accused Seehofer of wanting the problem to go away: “Today’s investigation raises doubts as to whether the Minister of the Interior is really acting on the subject, or whether he is just looking for evidence that everything is in order with the authorities. Because the management report presented today is based on voluntary information from the authorities. So if a local authority chief wanted to hold a protective hand over one or the other colleague whose right-wing extremist or racist activities he was aware of, that was no problem at all.” The article concludes, “Even as Seehofer is once again praising himself for his commitment, the signal to the right-wing extremists in the security authorities is clear: They still have little to fear.”

The Zeit wrote that Seehofer “has been trying his hand at being a magician for a few months. Whenever it comes to right-wing extremist problems with the police, he tries to distract the audience with a new trick.” Although Seehofer has said that this is less than one percent of the workforce, there are still hundreds of cases, and only those who have been registered are counted. Like NTV, the Zeit points out that the report was drawn up on the basis of data that the police authorities sent them. It concludes that “A minister of the Interior should not put on a show, but rather fight right-wing extremism in his own ranks with full force. Anything else is a frightening idea.”

The Taggeschau asked, ” What do you do with this knowledge now? First of all, it is unclear how meaningful the report is at all,” but argued that, “It would be wrong, however, to just look at the current status report and brush the problem off the table….. It is therefore important to identify and name the problem as a problem regardless of its size,” and that, “We need a culture of looking, not of looking away.”

Later on Friday, NDR reported allegations that a government director from the Ministry of Defence had been a member of ‘Germania’, a group which is classified as right-wing extremist.

The beleaguered right populist the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is having another bad week. NTV reported at the weekend that the ongoing scandals over right-extremism in the party are turning away voters in the party’s stronghold, the east of Germany, where it has slipped from first to third within a year.

At the beginning of October 2019 the AfD was still at 24 percent in the east of the country according to the Kantar opinion research institute, one percentage point ahead of the CDU, but now it is on 18 percent. In the east the party is just behind the Left Party (which is on 19 percent) and well behind the CDU (30 percent). The SPD has 13 percent in the east, the Greens 9 percent, the FDP 5 percent and the other parties 6 percent.

Last week, the AfD parliamentary group in the Bundestag kicked out press spokesman Christian Lüth after reports of inflammatory remarks about migrants in a TV documentary. This week, the Zeit reported that parliamentary co-leader Alexander Gauland and national leader Tino Chrupulla knew by the end of April 2020 at the latest that Lüth had made statements which were highly explosive. In a meeting with a Youtuber, Lisa Licentia, which was recorded, the Zeit reported that Lüth said : “We discussed that for a long time with Gauland: the worse Germany is doing, the better for the AfD.” In response to Lisa Licentia’s comment that it sounds like it is in his interest that more migrants come, he is alleged to have replied, “Yes. Because then the AfD will be better. We can still shoot them all afterwards. That is not an issue. Or gas them, or whatever you want. I don’t care!”

Opinion polls

Just before the corona pandemic, the CDU/CSU Union reached its lowest ever levels in the polls, and German politics seemed more fragmented than ever before, with the smaller parties making inroads on the two ‘people’s parties’, the CDU and the SPD.

Since March, the CDU/CSU Union has gained enormously from its handling of the crisis; coalition partners SPD, however are still languishing at around 14-16%; and that is despite the fact that SPD ministers such as Finance Minisert Olaf Scholz and Employment Minister Hubertus Heil are playing key roles in the crisis, and receiving high approval ratings.

This is not good news for the SPD, which last month got ahead of the game by nominating Scholz as SPD Chancellor-candiate. Following the announcement, the SPD climbed a few points in the polls, but have slipped back again. In addition, Scholz is currently under pressure about two financial scandals: Cum-Ex and Wirecard.

In the case of Cum-Ex, Scholz has admitted to have had more intensive contacts with the Hamburg’s Warburg Bank than he had previously said, and

there have been questions about why Hamburg tax authorities waived the repayment of 47 million euros from the bank in 2016, when Scholz was Mayor of Hamburg. In the case of Wirecard, the collapse of the company exposed significant flaws in Germany’s system of financial regulation, overseen by the Finance Ministry. There have been questions about what the ministry knew about Wirecard and a committee of inquiry has been set up (see Parliamentary Digest).

This week, Scholz was ridiculed for saying that he did not regard himself as rich – despite earning around 15,000 euros a month, as well as his wife earning 14,000 as a minister in the state of Brandenburg. The Spiegel asked, “Can someone without consciousness of class be expected to stand up for social justice?” The article pointed out that according to the Institute of the German Economy, a single person earning 3892 euros net or a childless couple earning 5294 euros is considered to be high-income. In terms of perceptions, the Institute says that many people think that someone who receives at least 7,000 to 10,000 euros a month is rich, and according to the Federal Ministry of Labor (Scholz’s former workplace), many people see the limit at at least 5000 euros: “Whichever definition you use: Olaf Scholz receives around 16,000 euros gross per month, his wife Britta Ernst earns around 14,000 euros. They belong to the highest income percentile in Germany.”

In response to criticism, Scholz wrote, “To clarify my point of view: As Vice Chancellor I belong to the group of very good earners in our country – everyone can read up on how well. And also that we want higher tax rates for very good earners. So for me too. Because it’s fair. This is what I stand for as a candidate for chancellor.

October’s ARD-Deutschland Trend showed that Scholz’s approval is down by 7 points, to 52% – although he remains the third most popular politician – while Merkel remains top with 72% approval.

Meanwhile, speculation continues about who will become the new CDU leader. Not only does the CDU have to select a new leader in December, since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will step down (this should have happened in April, but was delayed due to the corona pandemic), the CDU/CSU Union must select its Chancellor candidate.

The Tagesspiegel reported that several CDU politicians have signalled support for Health Minister Jens Spahn for the party leadership. In February, Spahn, a hope-bearer for the right of the party, made the surprise announcement that he would not be standing as leader, but instead would team up with the centrist, pro-Merkel candidate Armin Laschet. But since then, the corona pandemic has reshuffled the pack and Spahn has shot up in popularity, coming second to Merkel in the ARD-Deustchland trend, with 62% approval rates.

Rise in corona infections: “It is possible that the virus will spread out of control.”

From Wednesday to Thursday the number of new coronavirus infections in Germany rose from 2828 to 4058 and on Friday, the number of new infections rose by 4721. Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute said that, “It is possible that the virus will spread out of control.”

On Friday, the federal government and the mayors of the eleven largest German cities agreed on multi-stage measures to respond to increasing numbers of infections in hotspots. The Bundeswehr and the Robert Koch Institute are to send experts to hotspots in the future if more than 35 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants are registered in seven days. Cities will have to introduce more extensive restrictions at the latest when the rate rises to 50 infections per 100,000 including expanding mandatory face mask requirements to include public spaces if the required distance cannot be maintained there.

Germans from coronavirus hotspots will only be allowed to travel to other regions, such as Bavaria and Brandenburg, if they can show a negative test result.

Health Minister Jens Spahn blamed the surge on young people who were not observing social distancing rules: “It’s above all the younger people who are getting infected at the moment — because they’re having parties, because they’re travelling, because they think they’re invulnerable. But they’re not.”

On Friday, Angela Merkel also addressed young people, asking them to think about the importance of the health fo their family and their grandparents.

Berlin is one of the areas which has become a hotspot in the last few weeks – on Friday the capital had  3141 active cases, an R number of 1,02 and a new infection rate of 52.8. In an attempt to stop young people partying, the Berlin Senate introduced new reguslations, including shutting bars and restaurants at 11pm and a ban on the sale of alcohol and outside gatherings after that time, as. well as a limit of 10 inside.

Russia

France and Germany have condemned the poisoning of Alexej Navalny and announced sanctions will be taken against Russia. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) and his French counterpart Jean-Yves le Drian said on Wednesday that they will submit proposals to their European partners for sanctions.

Against this background of strained relations between Germany and Russia, the murder trial of a Russian accused of killing an exiled Chechen in Berlin began this week. The Deutsche Welle reported that this could turn out to be a political powder keg: opposition parties have already accused the government of being half-hearted in its dealings with Russia. The government has threatened but not carried out sanctions against Nord Stream 2, the pipeline to carry gas from Russia to Germany, which is currently under construction. There have also been calls for former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder to step down from his positions at Russian state-owned energy companies including as chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream 2.

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