Angela Merkel has threatened to centralise Germany’s pandemic response as several of the country’s federal states refuse to implement an emergency brake mechanism on easing restrictions in spite of rapidly rising infection rates.
Interviewed on German television on Sunday night, the German chancellor complained that the political instruments to break a third wave of the virus, for example by imposing a strict nationwide lockdown, were currently not at her government’s disposal, speaking of a “turning point” in the management of the Covid-19 crisis.
Merkel fell short of spelling out how such a politically sensitive power grab could look, merely hinting at a tweaking of Germany’s pandemic law.
“We need action in the federal states,” the German leader said. “We need to take the appropriate measures very seriously. Some states are doing it; others are not yet doing it.”
Decentralisation was one of the allied occupation of Germany’s four guiding principles after the second world war, alongside denazification, demilitarisation and democratisation: executive power was to be spread out across 16 federal states to prevent a historically aggressive nation from starting another war.
But in the fight against a virus the country’s federal structures have proved increasingly prohibitive, with some of the 16 Länder straying from red lines agreed at the monthly video conference call that has become Germany’s central decision-making forum.
Less hierarchically tilted towards the national capital than that of the United States, German federalism enables states to enact requirements that differ from national guidelines in fields including health and education.
The small state of Saarland on the border with France, for example, is unilaterally planning to end its lockdown measures after Easter and reopen sports and entertainment venues.
The large western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, governed by the new head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party Armin Laschet, announced on Friday that shops would stay open in some municipalities in spite of infection rates surpassing the critical benchmark of 100 infections per 100,000 people within seven days.
Using veiled diplomatic language, Merkel used Sunday’s interview with the broadcaster Anne Will to chide Laschet, who hopes to represent the CDU in the race for national elections in September this year: her colleague’s interpretation of the rules, she said, “doesn’t fill me with joy”.
Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier who is mooted as the German conservatives’ alternative chancellor candidate, was meanwhile quick out of the block to lend his support to Merkel’s pro-lockdown stance, telling the news programme Tagesthemen on Sunday night he could imagine assigning the national state more power to “enforce clear rules” via an amendment of the pandemic law.
To impose a nationwide law or ban, a German chancellor must usually obtain unanimous consent from the states. Some constitutional experts argue that Germany’s basic law already does allow Merkel to impose a lockdown as a “measure against dangerous communicable disease among animals and humans”.
But such a move would be politically and legally risky and at odds with the consensual style Merkel has practised for the last 16 years.
German federalism, which is rooted in the country’s organisational structures of the 19th century but was suspended during the Third Reich, is fiercely protected by constitutional court in Karlsruhe and cherished across the political divide. Even Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland’s parliamentary group, argued in the Bundestag last week that “decentralisation is the command of the hour” in pandemic times.
During the first wave of the virus last spring, federalism was credited with leading to a high compliance with lockdown rules. In her interview on Sunday, Merkel merely said she was “still thinking about” how the federal states could be brought in line.