Coronavirus in Germany: How the federal system hampers the fight against the pandemic | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.10.2020
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Coronavirus in Germany: How the federal system hampers the fight against the pandemic

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the spotlight on Germany's sometimes fragmented federal governance. Does it lead to tailor-made local solutions, or ceaseless territorial squabbles?

Germany's states and national government are struggling to bring coronavirus case numbers back into line, with most major cities now above the government's warning level— 50 cases per 100,000 people across the previous week. 

With authorities keen to keep workplaces and schools open, they're looking to find restrictions in the hospitality sector and travel instead. 

One discussion likely to dominate mid-week, in the latest round of talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of the 16 regional governments, will be forbidding people from at-risk areas from staying the night in hotels or guest houses in other German states. 

Most states have imposed rules along these lines, but there are variations. Germany's smallest, the city-state of Bremen, has no restrictions on people coming to visit the city and staying in hotels — even though Bremen itself is deemed an at-risk area by the government.

Similarly, last week's restrictions on pub opening hours and the late sale of alcohol in the hard-hit capital Berlin are likely to feature in the talks.

One country, 17 governments

Rather like the US, and in stark contrast to France, Germany's 16 states hold considerable political power. In fact, Article 70 of Germany's constitution explicitly states that all lawmaking rests in the states' hands unless stated otherwise in the Basic Law itself.

This list of regional powers is therefore long: Health provision, education, policing, cultural policy, construction planning — each state even has its own independent domestic intelligence service and its own court system.

Read more: Angela Merkel talks coronavirus with the mayors of major German cities

Map showingGerman states and population size

The 16 states vary greatly in population size, which all have their own governments.

Many coronavirus measures have faced legal challenges from individuals unhappy with the closure of their business or with restrictions on the number of guests for a celebration.

In an attempt at finding a unified approach, there have been regular discussions between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 16 state premiers.

For almost any major policy that Merkel wishes to introduce nationwide, she requires the unanimous approval of the state leaders. And at most of these meetings, at least one desired plan has come to naught — late in August, all of Germany save for Saxony-Anhalt (population: 2.2 million) agreed back then to assign €50 fines for people failing to wear facemasks on public transport on in stores. 

Read more: Opinion — Germany needs a clear coronavirus protection plan

Sparsely populated rural states like Saxony-Anhalt or Mecklenburg Western Pomerania with only 2 million inhabitants argue that their low caseloads requite less draconian measures. Saxony-Anhalt's Christian Democrat state premier Rainer Haseloff frequently resisting Angela Merkel's desired nationwide policies. He argues that the numbers in his region are so low that it would not be fair to take a tougher line, but does this compromise the national strategy of his party ally?

Read more: Coronavirus triggers night-time curfew in Berlin

State power as a path to the chancellery

Past political discussions on diluting state powers tend to be non-starters, primarily as the states themselves would have to agree. And as the saying goes, turkeys don't usually vote for Christmas.

Each state parliament is a meaningful contributor to political job creation. Top state politicians can comfortably earn six-figure annual salaries, as can their ministers. 

But it's not just about the money. State politics can be an excellent stepping stone to the national arena. Very often, a German politician with eyes on the chancellery might decide their profile will be considerably higher as the top politician in a major state, rather than as a minister in the central government in Berlin. 

Longstanding CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl (Rhineland Palatinate) and the last Social Democrat chancellor, Gerhard Schröder (Lower Saxony), both graduated directly from running a state to running the country. 

The top dogs right now in Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia — the CSU's more draconian conservative Markus Söder, and the CDU's good-time metropolitan liberal Armin Laschet in NRW — are seen to have ambitions to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor after Germany's national elections next year. So don't expect either of them to meekly turn tail if they see political value in causing further headaches for Berlin in the coming months.

Watch video 01:35

Germany: Alarm over surge in coronavirus infections

This is an updated version of a previous article.

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