Parliamentary Digest 9th October

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

Questions to the government: Foreign Office

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas answered questions in the Bundestag, many of which focused on Russia and the Navalny poisoning. He said that the International Agency for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a chemical neurotoxin from the Novichok group and announced that a “joint reaction” would be agreed with partners in the EU.

The FDP spokesman asked whether the government assumed that government agencies in Russia were involved in the attack on Alexei Navalny, and quoted the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who he said has claimed that there were no “certain facts” in the Navalny case. He asked,”Do you agree with me that the statement is likely to damage Germany’s reputation abroad for all democratic forces in Russia and beyond?” Maas replied that he did not comment on statements by Gerhard Schröder. Based on their findings, the federal government continues to assume that the use of the poison took place on Russian territory. “Therefore, no other explanation is plausible for us than that this was done in some way under the responsibility of whatever places in Russia.”

As far as Nord Stream 2 sanctions are concerned, Maas said that the government was still coordinating at European level how a common reaction could look. The result could be the “sanctioning of individuals”: Nord Stream 2 is not part of sanctions, and the Navalny case is not a German-Russian conflict.

Women in the Bundestag

The Left Party, Green Party and FDP all submitted motions about the number of women in the Bundestag, and these were debated on Thursday. All three parliamentary groups called for a rights commission to explore ways in which women can be represented in the Bundestag.

The proportion of women in the Bundestag is currently around 31 percent, over 5 percent less than in the previous legislative period, and the same level as in 1998.

The Left Party and the Greens motions called for clear legal regulations with the aim of bringing a certain number of women and the Parliament. The FDP motion was not so strong, talking of proposals for political participation and an analysis of barriers in the run-up to candidacies.

Although all the parliamentary groups except for the AfD supported the idea of a higher proportion of women in the Bundestag (the AfD spokeswoman, Beatrix von Storch, called the drafts a “pouring out of radical feminist ideology”), they disagreed on how to achieve this.

The proposals to set up a commission this year were rejected.

The CDU/CSU spokeswoman, Petra Nicolaisen, argued that quotas alone are not the solution to the problem and that the solution must start at grassroots level. Equality cannot be changed by law, she argued, saying,”We have to go step by step.”

The SPD spokesman Mahmut Özdemir said that the SPD approves quotas and that reform commission on electoral law reform (see below) will deal with the issue at the insistence of the SPD.

The debate came in a week in which European Trade Union Confederation research showed that to will take 101 years for the gender pay gap to be closed in Germany if current trends continue.

An SPD MP argued that because the CDU/CSU, FDP and AfD have no quotas, less than a third of MPs are women

Electoral reform

The CDU/CSU and SPD government coalition has agreed on proposals to limit the number of MPs in future federal elections, since the current Bundestag is the largest ever, with 709 seats and the next could reach 800. More on the current system can be found in the politikonline political glossary.

On Monday, the Committee on Home Affairs heard opinion about the proposals from experts and on Wednesday, the committee approved the proposals, against the votes of all the opposition parties. On Thursday, the Bundestag debated the proposals, as well as opposition proposals for electoral reform.

The proposals aim to adhere to the electoral system of personalized proportional representation. The increase in the number of seats introduced with the change in electoral law in 2013 to compensate for overhang mandates is to be retained. In order to reduce the enlargement of the Bundestag, the coalition wants to start off balancing overhang mandates only after the third overhang mandate and avoid further growth also by offsetting electoral district mandates to list mandates of the same party in other states. The first allocation step is to be modified in such a way “that a federally balanced distribution of the Bundestag mandates is still guaranteed”.

The number of constituencies is to be reduced from 299 to 280 in the future with effect from January 1, 2024 – after the next federal election. In addition the Bundestag will to set up a reform commission “which will deal with issues of electoral law and develop recommendations” and report by mid-2023 at the latest.

The Committee heard criticism of the proposals from experts. Much of the criticism focused on the belief that the draft would not fulfill its purpose of “significantly reducing the enlargement of the Bundestag”. Even the “rather modest goal” of having less than 709 MPS would not be achieved by the draft law. One argued that simulations based on the coalition draft, would result in 750 MPs. Another said that the coalition’s draft law is also “constitutionally at least precarious.”

In the Bundestag debate on Thursday, the draft was approved, with the coalition government parties voting in favour of the draft and the opposition groups against.

New Bundesrat President

This week the Bundesrat formally approved that, from 1st November, Saxony-Anhalt will take over the rotating Bundesrat Presidency, meaning that the state’s CDU Minister President Reiner Haseloff will take over from Brandenburg’s Dietmar Woidke as Bundesrat President. Haseloff, who leads a CDU-SPD-Green Party coalition government in Saxony-Anhalt, has recently made the headlines because he was the only head of government to reject a nationwide minimum fine for violations of the corona face mask requirement.

Every year on 1st November a new Bundesrat President takes office, based on a fixed sequence, determined on the basis of population numbers in the federal states, beginning with the head of government in the most populous federal state. The President convenes and chairs the Bundesrat’s plenary sessions, and announces the decisions taken in the plenary session, and represents the Bundesrat at official appointments in Germany and abroad. The Bundesrat President exercises the powers of the Federal President if the latter is unable to perform their duties.

In its plenary session on Friday, the Bundesrat approved numerous laws, two of which it only received from the Bundestag that morning, including an increase in in fuel emission prices (see below). It also approved other laws from the Bundestag including those to promote electric vehicles through tax exemptions and relief for the installation of private charging stations, as well as measures to provide financial support to clinics in the Future Hospitals Programme. The Bundesrat also introduced its own laws to go to the Bundestag including proposals for a better exchange of information between the authorities in a child’s best interests, better occupational health and safety on construction sites, expansion of child sickness benefits, support for airports in the corona pandemic and consumer protection in online e-cigarette trading.

Face masks in Bundestag

From Tuesday this week, members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, have been required to wear mouth and nose coverings. The decision was taken by Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, who said “the pandemic is still very serious.” The requirement will remain in place until January and fine of up to 5,000 euros can be given to anyone who ignores the regulations.

The rules apply in every room of the building and masks can only be removed when people have taken their seats. Those speaking at the podium in the main chamber will be permitted to take their masks off.

Continuing its provocative bevahiour in parliament, some Alternative for Germany (AfD) MPs this week entered the plenary session without face masks – and were called to order by Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble.

Schäuble said that violations of this rule also meant a violation of parliamentary order: “The health risk to MPs through the behaviour of other MPs endangers the completion of the parliamentary work assigned to us.”

Beatrix von Storch removes her mask

Higher CO2 price

On Thursday, the Bundestag approved a government/Green Party amendment to the Fuel Emissions Trading Act. A price of €25 per tonne of CO2 will apply to the heat and transport sectors in Germany from 2021. The governing coalition wanted to start at ten euros, but after pressure from the Greens, the mediation committee of the Bundesrat and Bundestag agreed on the increase at the end of 2019, and it is now being implemented by law. Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) said, “The goal is that the switch to climate-friendly alternatives is also the right choice for the wallet.”

According to the Ministry of the Environment, a CO2 price of 25 euros per ton means that a litre of petrol will increase by 7 cents and a litre of diesel by 7.9 cents. Heating oil will be 7.9 cents more expensive per litre, natural gas by 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour. In order to cushion the rising costs, there will be billions paid in relief, for electricity prices as well as for the commuter allowance for employees with longer journeys. The higher CO2 price will mean that the state will earn billions more – this additional revenue is to be used in full to lower the EEG surcharge to promote green electricity and, from 2024, to further increase the commuter allowance. It is still unclear how additional costs will be divided between tenants and landlords.

AfD Chairmanship of Budget Committee

Following the ejection of the AfD Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, Stephan Brandner, last year over some offensive tweets, another AfD Chair could lose his post. Chairman of the Budget Committee, Peter Boehringer, took out a half-page advertisement in the Neue Züricher Zeitung in June which crossed serval lines, according to MPs in the Budget Committee. The MPs wrote a letter to Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble in which they asked Schäuble to examine whether Boehringer “has violated the rules of conduct for members of the German Bundestag as well as abusively used his role as chairman of the committee.”

Under the heading “More Europe through less EU: The market economy must be preserved”, Boehringer wrote about “self-proclaimed elites,” “masters of ‘real counterfeit money,” and “unrestrained credit creation,” saying that “the Brussels Leviathan is becoming increasingly voracious”. He called for people to defend themselves “with the necessary moral courage.”

The MPs criticised Boehringer for “spreading conspiracy theories about the EU, the ECB and refugee policy.” In the past Boehringer has repeatedly attracted attention for spreading conspiracy myths. For example, in a tweet at the beginning of October, reported the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Boehringer wrote how “German interests are being betrayed and sold,” using comparisons such as “God versus Satan”.

Free movement of people in the EU: Home Affairs Committee

According to a new draft law by the government, infringement proceedings by the European Commission are pending against the Federal Republic of Germany, concerning the Free Movement Directive, under which each EU member state regulates the entry and residence of certain groups of people as EU citizens. As a result of the ratification of the agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government states there is a need for additional regulation, which must be complied with in accordance with the mandatory provisions of the agreement.

Under the draft law, the government wants to take into account the exiting status rights of the British and their family members who are entitled to free movement.

This was examined by the Home Affairs Committee this week. The Committee heard that for the nearly 100,000 “old British” in Germany, the proposed regulations are immensely important, and must now be quickly laid down in the Freedom of Movement Act, because administrations will have to take the necessary precautions for implementation by the end of the year. With regard to the “New Britons”, the partnership agreement only includes rudimentary mobility rules and the advice from the federal government that the general law on foreigners should apply to this group of people is correct.

Wirecard Committee of Inquiry set up

The Wirecard investigation committee was set up on Thursday. The committee’s remit is to clarify the extent to which the federal government and government authorities knew about the incidents at Wirecard and to what extent they fulfilled their obligations concerning finance, money laundering and tax supervision at the group. It will also examine whether and how the Federal Government has represented the Wirecard Group at home and abroad and whether the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) has saw any criminal and / or manipulative behaviour or should have seen it earlier. Or, as ZDF put it, “Why did no one notice that 1.9 billion euros disappeared into nowhere – not even the financial services regulator Bafin, although the Financial Times, for example, has been reporting on irregularities since 2015?”

The nine-member committee elected an Alternative for Germany MP, Kay Gottschalk, as committee chair in a secret ballot. According to parliamentary tradition, committee chairs are assigned in a fixed order according to size of parliamentary groups – so it was the AfD’s turn for Wirecard. This caused some concern amongst the other parliamentary groups, which struggle balancing parliamentary norms with the provocative behaviour of the AfD, and the consensus not to cooperate with the party politically. Earlier in the week, the digital spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group, Jens Zimmermann, said, “Especially in a committee of inquiry, it is doubly difficult to withhold something from a minority that is due to them according to parliamentary practice,”but that ut is clear that there is no automatism to “elect certain people”. The Green spokesman said that “the introduction of an AfD chairman will certainly not spark any enthusiasm in me.” The Left Party spokesman said he will “not support any committee chairman who endangers our investigations.”

ZDF has obtained a list of witnesses who will be invited to give evidence, which “reads like a who’s who of German politics” and includes Angela Merkel, Minister for Economics Peter Altmaier, Finance Minister Scholz and Bavaria’s Minister President Markus Söder.

Budgets

Following the debates on the federal budget last week, other states presented their budgets in parliaments this week. Most were heavily affected by the corona pandemic, and involved high levels of borrowing.

The Rhineland-Pfalz government 2021 budget, which was presented to parliament on Wednesday, like the Federal budget, is heavily influenced by the costs of the corona pandemic. The budget provides for total adjusted expenditure of around 19.852 billion euros and adjusted total revenues of around 18.585 billion euros, meaning that new net borrowing will be 1.267 billion euros.

The Saarland government presented its budget for both 2021 and 2022 on Wednesday, the largest budget in the state’s history. Expenditure will amount to € 4.97 billion in 2021 and € 5.07 billion in 2022. The government expects net borrowing totalling €394 million in 2021 and € 258 million in 2022.

The government of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is a CDU-FDP government with a majority of 1, presented its budget of 82 billion euros, which is within the framework of the last medium-term financial plan for 2019 to 2023, meaning that the state will not take on new debt next year. However, the state government’s corona rescue package of 25 billion euros is not part of the budget draft; in March, the state parliament unanimously decided aid package to deal with the economic consequences of the corona crisis.

The budget in Thuringia, which has a Left Party-led coalition, was already debated for the first time in September, and was considered by the Finance Committee this week. The 2020 supplementary budget included net borrowing of around 1.8 billion as a results of the corona pandemic. The 2021 budget, however, does not provide for any new borrowing. The budget has been fiercely debated in Thürginia, which was the scene of a political crisis this year, and CDU and FDP politicians are threatening not to pass it.

Meanwhile, in the Bundestag, the AfD made an application this week to rule the second supplementary budget of 2020 unconstitutional. In July, the Bundestag approved the second supplementary budget, to deal with the effects of the corona pandemic, following the first supplementary budget of 122.5 billion euros extra spending in March; the second supplementary budget meant an increase of 24,043 billion euros on the first supplementary budget and total expenditure of 509.3 billion euros in 2020. This meant that Germany is taking out loans totalling 218.5 billion euros in 2020 to finance the necessary spending.

In order to take on extra debt required, the Bundestag voted to approve exceeding the credit limits in accordance with Article 115, Paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz (the constitution) (the ‘debt brake’, which limits the federal government’s structural net borrowing to 0.35% of gross domestic product).

The AfD parliamentary group requested that the Bundestag “apply to the Federal Constitutional Court to determine that the law on the establishment of a second amendment to the federal budget for the 2020 financial year (second amendment budget law 2020) is unconstitutional”. The AfD has opposed the extra spending and regards the government’s response to the corona crisis as unnecessary.

2016 Berlin terrorist attack Committee of Inquiry

A Committee of Inquiry into the 2016 attack by an Islamic terrorist on a Berlin Christmas market, which killed 12 people and injured more than 70, heard last week that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) did not have the perpetrator on their radar.

This week, the former President of the BfV Hans-Georg Maaßen (who took ‘early retirement’ in 2018 following controversy after downplaying the actions of the extreme right in the 2018 Chemnitz riots, and who spoke of himself as the victim of a conspiracy of “radical left-wing” forces in the German government) said that the BfV was not responsible for the terrorist, Anis Amris; instead he criticised the way immigration authorities, the judiciary and politics had dealt with Amri, who was on their radar as a criminal. “For me it is completely incomprehensible that Amri with this biography was in Germany on December 19, 2016. The attack should not have taken place. It was avoidable. That is the particular tragedy,” he said. Criticising the police, he said, “From our point of view, Anis Amri was a police case. It was a case under the primary responsibility of the police authorities.” According to the BfV, Amri was “not a particularly explosive threat”, and certainly not the “mega threat” that the media made of him after the attack.

Home working

As promised in the spring, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil is bringing forward plans to give the right to a minimum of 24 days a year working at home, reported the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Under Heil’s provisions in the Mobile Work Act, employees and employers could agree on more than 24 days home working in collective agreements or company agreements, and an employer may only refuse a request for mobile work if there are understandable organisational or operational reasons for doing so. Heil said that, “If both parents have a job in which mobile working is feasible, then, according to my suggestion, one parent can take turns working from home for a day every week. That makes family life a lot easier. ”

The Employment spokesman for the CDU/CSU Union parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Peter Weiß, rejected the plans, saying, “There could only be a real legal claim for part of the workforce. But then you would set up a two-tier system in labour law.” The Greens Party and the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) felt that the provisions do not go far enough, and that the planned legal entitlement of 24 days is too little.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the Chancellery is blocking the draft law.

At the same time, the Tagesschau reported that the government purchased desktop PCs, laptops and tablets including accessories for a total of 93.5 million euros to enable its employees to work on the move in the corona pandemic.

Employment and Social Committee – medium-sized meat companies fear for their future

Following the outbreaks of corona in meat processing factories in the spring, which exposed the living and working conditions of often foreign workers, Employment Minister Hubertus Heil promised regulation in the meat industry and introduced the government’s draft for an Occupational Safety and Health Control Act in September. The draft law bans service contracts and temporary work in large meat factories, enforces stricter requirements for shared accommodation for employees and coordinates and intensifies safety controls.

At the committee, witnesses from medium-sized companies in the meat industry said that they fear for their future. The law covers businesses from 49 employees, but witnesses were concerned that medium sized businesses that sell their products themselves have more than 49 employees through the sales force alone – including many part-time workers. One argued that the logistics and the specialised cleaning of the packaging rooms are organised through work contracts. “If we were forbidden to do that, we would have to close tomorrow.”

Bankruptcies since the beginning of COVID-19

In reply to a minor question from the FDP parliamentary group, the government said that according to the Federal Statistical Office, between January 2020 and June 2020, a total of 9,006 insolvency applications were filed by companies with a total of 78,684 affected employees. More recent figures are not yet available. The government went on to say that the federal government is currently assuming a decline in gross domestic product of 5.8 percent in 2020 and an increase in corporate insolvencies is to be expected. However, there is great uncertainty in the forecasts published so far in view of the extraordinary situation.

More trouble for Scheuer over car toll

Last week, the Parliamentary Digest reported that Scheuer was in trouble over statements he had made to the Bundestag about the 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 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 and a Committee of Inquiry was set up.

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. Last week, a leading representative of the bidding consortium for the collection of the car toll has confirmed that the consortium had advised Andreas Scheuer to wait to sign the contract until after the European Court of Justice judgement, leading the questions about whether Scheuer had lied to the Bundestag. At a high-level meeting, however, Scheuer rejected this. Scheuer rebutted these allegations, saying, “As far as I can remember, there was no offer to wait until after the judgment of the European Court of Justice with the signing of the contract.

This week, reported the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Scheuer’s Ministry of Transport has for the first time confirmed irregularities in employment contracts in the toll company. A letter from State Secretary Enak Ferlemann isa said to admit that, “The conclusion of non-collective bargaining employment contracts of the Autobahn GmbH of the federal government and their submission to the supervisory board led to irregularities.”

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the background is the suspicion that overly high employment contracts with executives were made: “Scheuer had had a new collective agreement drawn up specifically for the company, which provided for higher salaries than existed in the federal states. This was necessary to make the transition to the new company attractive to employees.” But the contracts are said to have deviated far from what the supervisory board had approved – and also from what Minister Scheuer had negotiated with the unions in the collective agreement.

The company’s board was not satisfied with an internal audit and commissioned an external auditor to clarify the matter. The opposition parties accused Scheuer of not having given the information to the Bundestag when he knew about the matter: “The fact that Andreas Scheuer had been aware of the events since June, but has only now informed parliament about it, again shows the minister’s appalling understanding of transparency,” said Green MPs Sven-Christian Kindler and Stephan Kühn. “The results of the external audit must be published immediately. After the car toll, the next scandal is evidently looming, in which Andreas Scheuer does not seem to have any interest in real clarification.”

Minister President of Saarland leaves Tiktok over security concerns

The CDU Minister President of Saarland, Tobias Hans, was the only state leader using a Tik-Tok account, which had 3000 followers. A question from the Left Party elicited the information that, due to security concerns, Hans had shut his TikTok account at the end of August. Jens Spahn’s Ministry of Health also uses Tiktok, but is considering withdrawing from the video app due to security and data protection concerns.

Bad report for Berlin schools

Berlin spends more money than almost any other federal state on education, but this is not reflected in high quality in daycare centers and schools, reported an expert commission appointed by the Berlin Senate this week. The report found that too many students in Berlin learn too little – around a quarter of them lack the basics. Three expressions were used repeatedly when the report was presented: “realistic goals”, “commitment” and “no watering can principle. ” German and Maths teaching were particularly mentioned as areas for improvement.

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 Bundestag calendar also includes sitting dates of the sate parliaments.

The next sitting week for the Bundestag is 26th – 30th October.

The next plenary session of the Bundesrat is Friday, 6th November. Information about the plenary sessions of the Bundesrat can be found here and information about its responsibilities here.

The politikonline political glossary can be found here.

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