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Germany's federal system vs coronavirus

September 1, 2020

Responding 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?

State premiers struggling to put masks on correctly
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's entirely possible that you have heard or read something about masks becoming mandatory in German secondary school classrooms. Or you might have heard the exact reverse, that this rule was being lifted. Well, both these claims are accurate. 

Germany's two most populous and influential states are moving in opposite directions on this issue. As Bavaria in the south decrees that kids don a mask in lessons, to the northwest, North Rhine-Westphalia has ditched that same rule. 

Read more: Germany imposes tougher measures to curb coronavirus

Mixed mask messages

Bavarian Education and Cultural affairs Minister Michael Piazolo took to the microphone on Tuesday to set out the state government's new plans on masks in schools. Classes should start as scheduled on September 8, and for at least two weeks, secondary school kids should wear masks at all times "unless the school can ensure sufficient distancing in classrooms." Then, from September 21, the local caseload would dictate whether or not they were required. 

A day earlier, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) School Minister Yvonne Gebauer sought to argue that masks in classrooms were "no longer necessary," since the state's caseload had dipped back towards the national average. Several schools, however, had reached voluntary agreements to uphold the rules all the same.

Meanwhile, across the border French students returned to school this Tuesday with masks mandatory nationwide for teachers and all students aged 11 or over. 

Map of Germany and its 16 states
The most populous state, NRW has almost 20 million inhabitants, Bremen only 600,000

The situation is equally diverse when it comes to fines for those who refuse to wear masks in public: Last week in a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel 15 of the 16 states agreed on a fine of €50 starting on September 1 — with the state of Saxony Anhalt failing to toe the line. 

Public transport users failing to uphold mask rules, however, face fines of €150 or more. Matters are made more complicated as many trains cross state lines, prompting consumer groups to complain that it wasn't fair on travelers to be expected to know what rules apply when. 

Read more: How one German state enforces mask-wearing

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.

Armin Laschet
NRW Premier Armin Laschet has a reputation for being conciliatory, his state has the most people and the most coronavirus cases.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Many coronavirus measures have faced legal challenges. A ruling in North Rhine-Westphalia last week saying schools could not send kids home for refusing to wear masks might have played at least some part in the state's U-turn on face coverings.

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 — last week, imposing restrictions on how many people can gather privately fell by the wayside for the moment: Anything from only 10 to several hundred people may now gather — depending on whether the party is indoors or outside … and on the state in which the gathering is held.

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 or less can seek to hold Angela Merkel's government hostage. Saxony-Anhalt, in particular, has had a comparatively low caseload throughout the pandemic, with its 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?

Markus Söder
Bavarian premier Markus Söder is tipped to have good chances to become the joint CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor next yearImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. MacDougall

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.

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam