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How German federalism hampers the fight against coronavirus

March 29, 2021

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?

The flags of the 16 German states
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's states and national government are struggling to bring coronavirus case numbers back into line. 

Authorities are keen to keep workplaces and schools open, so they are inclined to find restrictions in the hospitality sector and travel instead.  

Most states have imposed and then retracted and then reimposed rules along these lines. There are and have been regional variations with the up and down in infection rates. 

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

Sparsely populated rural states like Saxony-Anhalt or Mecklenburg Western Pomerania with only 2 million inhabitants have often argued that their low caseloads requite less draconian measures.  

But the different regional interests pose problems at the national level in this election year: Some of the more rebellious state premiers belong to Angela Merkel’s own conservative bloc though that has not stopped them from throwing the occasional spanner in the works. 

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. 

Editor's note: his is an updated version of a previous article.  

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.

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