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Angela Merkel forces unity to fight COVID

Kate Brady
March 23, 2021

Chancellor Merkel convinced the premiers of Germany's 16 federal states to agree on an Easter lockdown. But it is increasingly difficult to find common ground as the country starts to move into election campaign mode.

Angela Merkel sitting between Berlin's Michael Müller (l) and Markus Söder at the latest press conference
Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in favor of a strict lockdown all alongImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Germany is in the grip of the third wave of COVID-19. Cases are rising week on week and have already reached levels that authorities say will soon overburden intensive care units.

The COVID-19 mutations have now "basically eaten up" earlier gains, Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Tuesday morning after 12 hours of negotiations.

The leaders agreed to pull the "COVID emergency brake," halting or turning back the cautious opening of shops, schools and recreational activities.

A tighter lockdown will come into effect in all regions that see more than 100 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants over a seven-day period.

But it was the decision to implement a strict five-day Easter lockdown, from April 1 to April 5, that was the most surprising outcome of the talks: Everything will again be closed, even most grocery stores. Outdoor gatherings are also not permitted.

The move fits the government's slogan #wirbleibenzuhause (We're staying at home) and is a 180-degree turn from the original demands some state premiers had made ahead of this week's deliberations.

Observers said Merkel had managed to crack the whip and forced the state premiers to agree to this to prevent talks from collapsing.

Federalism falling short

The approval of an extension to the current lockdown was where consensus between the states and Merkel began and ended.

The latest talks saw a deepening rift between the chancellor and state premiers, who each had their individual wish lists.

Germany's federal system descended again into territorial squabbles. The model, which was praised in the early months of the pandemic for enabling tailor-made, local solutions, has in recent months become a chaotic Flickenteppich (patchwork) that leaves each state to ultimately decide for itself when to impose or to lift restrictions.

Horns locked over tourism

The main point of contention in the latest round of discussions was tourism and travel. Five states were keen to allow domestic vacations for the Easter break.

They pointed to the federal government's decision earlier in March to remove Mallorca from the list of high-risk areas, prompting airlines to offer hundreds of extra flights to the Germans' favorite holiday destination.

With school holidays on the horizon, the premiers asked why a vacation close to home should remain prohibited.

But Chancellor Merkel insisted that the mistakes made before Christmas should not be repeated. Back then, she said, state premiers were also arguing over how many people should be allowed to meet up and how far should people be allowed to travel while Germany's COVID-19 caseload was mounting and the chancellor's calls for a harder lockdown were blocked.

The compromise, back in November, was a "lockdown light” that quickly proved to be ineffective. Merkel considers that move to have been a serious mistake — one that cost precious time in getting the infection rate down. She was adamant this should not be repeated.

Political posturing

Every passing week in lockdown is another week closer to the federal elections on September 26, when Angela Merkel will step down. Her personal approval rates have fallen markedly over the past few weeks.

The slow vaccine rollout and lockdown fatigue have seen the ruling conservative parties plummet from well over 30% in the 2017 election to just 27% in some recent polls. Corruption allegations over mask procurement have added to the parties' woes.

So the CDU/CSU bloc's would-be candidates for the chancellorship are keen to make themselves heard, and Angela Merkel's power seems to be waning.

"That's politics," says Gerhard Hirscher, a political analyst at the Hanns Seidel Foundation. "Everyone knows that the boss will soon no longer be the big boss. Everything is looking ahead to who comes next."

One of those looking for a chance to compete for the chancellorship is newly appointed CDU party leader Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia. He has received poor ratings in recent opinion polls, but his top-dog post puts him in a prime position to lead the conservatives in the elections. 

Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel, Markus Söder
After Easter, the CDU/CSU bloc will decide whether to name Armin Laschet (l) or Markus Söder as their top candidate

It's, therefore, no surprise that Laschet has previously tried hard to capitalize on perceived voter sentiment. At the beginning of February when it became clear that the more contagious B.1.1.7 virus mutation was spreading in Germany, Merkel and the state premiers lowered the decisive incidence value — a precondition to relaxing restrictions —  to 35 per 100,000 people.

Public reaction was one of such dismay that Laschet quickly sided with popular opinion. "You can't keep on inventing new limits and prevent life from going back to normal again," he said, speaking at a convention of business representatives in February.

In a similar move shortly after talks concluded on Tuesday, Laschet massively criticized the decision to remove Mallorca from the high-risk travel list, arguing that Monday night's drawn-out debate could have been avoided altogether.

Laschet also has the task of distinguishing himself from Markus Söder. The Bavarian state premier and party leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the CSU outperforms him in opinion polls: Over 70% of the CDU/CSU electorate say they'd prefer Söder as the conservative bloc's candidate for the chancellorship, compared to a meager 12% for Laschet.

Like Merkel, Söder has long been an advocate of tighter lockdown measures and unified national response. The rotating leadership of the state premier conference has recently coincidentally fallen in his favor: He now takes his high-profile seat next to the chancellor in the press conferences that follow every crucial COVID-19 meeting.

Which one of the two men ultimately runs for the conservatives is likely to have a decisive impact on the CDU/CSU bloc's performance in the polls come September. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round-up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.