Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for much tougher restrictions on public life going into Christmas. She came out explicitly in favor of the recommendations that Germany's National Academy of Science, Leopoldina, released on Tuesday.
They call for an end to required school attendance starting Dec. 14, an extended Christmas school break, a full closure of all but essential businesses starting December 24, and working from home to the fullest extent possible.
Merkel said she opposed opening hotels so families could meet over the Christmas and New Year's holidays and that she agreed with recommendations to close shops after Christmas until January 10.
Merkel made her remarks in the Bundestag parliament Wednesday morning as part of the debate over the government’s 2021 budget debate. These debates are traditionally an opportunity to take stock of government performance over the previous year. Merkel's planned retirement next year after 15 years in power means this was her final budget debate.
Later on Wednesday, Germany's next federal election date was set for September 26, 2021.
Merkel pushed back against criticism over her government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing the country was going through an "exceptional situation."
"The most important key to us successfully fighting the virus is the responsible behavior of every individual and the willingness to cooperate," Merkel told her audience of mostly unmasked MPs.
Germany is struggling to cope with the pandemic.The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's public disease health authority, on Wednesday announced a record daily death toll in Germany of 590 people bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 19,932 with more than 1.2 million infections.
"Five hundred deaths a day is unacceptable," said Merkel in her speech, which observers in Germany were quick to describe as unusually personal and emotional.
AfD attack on Merkel
Merkel came under sharp criticism from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party's co-leader in parliament, Alice Weidel called for an end to "counterproductive lockdowns" and slammed what she called Merkel's "aimless and grotesque" handling of the pandemic. "She locks up citizens and destroys entire industries," said Weidel, who argued a lockdown was being imposed with a "sledgehammer" and would lead to more harm than good.
The AfD is the largest opposition party in parliament and the staunchest critics of the government's pandemic policies.
At one point, a comment by Merkel was met with an audible cry of "that is not proven" from the AfD benches. The chancellor responded by telling the chamber "you see, that is the difference," before going on to explain why she had studied physics as a young woman growing up in the dictatorship of former East Germany.
"I believe in the power of the Enlightenment. I believe that Europe is where it is today thanks to the Enlightenment and to the belief in the fact that there are scientific findings that are real and should be followed," Merkel said. "I decided to study physics in the GDR [East Germany]. I probably would not have done that in the former West Germany. I did so because I was quite certain that you could abolish many things, but not gravity or the speed of light or other facts — and that will continue to be the case, ladies and gentlemen."
Christian Lindner, who leads the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), said the current lockdown restrictions were "purely symbolic, ineffective, and disproportionately undermine personal freedom."
He called for more "predictability" in the government’s efforts to reign in the virus and warned against what his party views as undue harm to German business and the economy.
The FDP leader along with other members of the Bundestag have strongly criticized the absence of parliamentary oversight of government pandemic policy.
Taking stock of Merkel's government
The parliamentary debate was dominated by the fight against the coronavirus.
Party and parliamentary leaders from across Germany’s political spectrum took turns at the plenary lectern to judge Merkel’s government and present their views on the state of the country.
According to the AfD's Alice Weidel the pandemic had just served to "accelerate and worsen" existing trends, such as the "mainstreaming" of political correctness.
"Germany’s armed forces are sensitive to gender identity, but are not ready to deploy," she said.
On the economy, Weidel said Merkel’s legacy would be debt and unemployment. Germany’s mighty auto industry had taken a back seat to Merkel’s climate-friendly politics, she alleged, speaking of misguided "climate hysteria" leading to a new focus on renewable energy. Electric cars, Weidel claimed, "have no viable future without billions in state help."
She also leaned on the common populist talking point of Islamist terrorism and "imported criminality," although German police statistics show a regular decline in crime through 2019, including the fewest thefts since 1987.
While the AfD is currently the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag, the Greens have moved well ahead of them in opinion polls.
The Green Party is is on track to help form, or possibly even lead, the next government.That made Wednesday’s parliamentary debate a chance for Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock to make her case that her party is ready to govern.
“We have to build back better,” she said, taking a line from US President-elect Joe Biden. “Billions in economic aid have to put us on the path towards carbon neutrality.”
She criticized the government for not doing more to incentivize companies to reduce their climate impact or invest more in climate-friendlier sectors, such as passenger rail transport.
Germany's international role
She warned of China’s growing influence in the European Union, calling its investments “not a humanitarian gesture but about dependency.” Baerbock contrasted the growing global presence of China, which Merkel has often been cautious to criticize, with Germany’s cuts in funding international programs such as UNICEF and the UN Development Program.
“This doesn’t threaten the security of Germany’s budget. It threatens Germany’s strategic role in the world,” she told fellow MPs.
Merkel acknowledged the challenges Germany faces on the European and global level.
She tempered expectations that the EU and UK will manage to strike a Brexit deal before the year's end deadline. That is also until when Germany leads the EU Council Presidency, which is looking for a way around a Polish-Hungarian veto of a trillion-plus EU budget and stimulus package.
The two countries are also hindering a stronger EU commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, which Merkel labeled as a vital issue for policy making today.
"The expectations on Europe are immense," she said.