In its flailing response to the Covid crisis, the German government appears to have finally given up on federalism. Angela Merkel's latest idea is to introduce nationwide ‘emergency brake’ measures to combat rising case numbers, replacing a patchwork system across the 16 federal states. But will it help bring Germany's third wave under control?
Legal changes to grant the federal government unprecedented power to enforce coronavirus regulations in all states have been backed by ministers. The final obstacle for the German Infection Protection Act is parliament. If Merkel's plan is approved, it will mark a big change in the way Germany is governed. It will also make it clear that Merkel is increasingly desperate for answers.
Merkel's federal 'emergency brake’ would mean that any region in any state with a high incidence of Covid-19 cases would be legally required to implement a uniform set of rules. This could involve night-time curfews and limits on private gatherings in regions where there are more than 100 new infections per 100,000 residents, a figure already exceeded in most of Germany. Schools will have to return to distance learning if the virus incidence rises above 200 per 100,000, a limit already exceeded in Saxony and Thuringia.
Merkel is clearly deeply troubled by what it unfolding on her watch. ‘The situation is serious and we also have to take it seriously,’ Germany's chancellor said last night, arguing that the existing system of regulations decided between the federal government and states is not enough to stop the third wave.
At the weekend, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control reported more than 17,800 new infections and 104 deaths in a single day. It marks a big rise from a week before, when the RKI registered nearly 12,200 daily cases and 68 deaths. Intensive care units are filling up. And yet only around 15 per cent of Germans have so far received a single dose of their Covid vaccines.
Perhaps as a result of these alarming numbers, Merkel appeared more resolute than usual when she announced the intentions of her government. The elimination of certain rights of the federal states comes from a point of desperation. Aside from the woeful Covid statistics, the approval ratings of Merkel’s Christian Democrats are at a historic low.
But could this rather drastic approach backfire? Georg Maier, interior minister in the eastern state of Thuringia, expressed concerns about imposing curfews, saying it would be hard for police to enforce them in the entire region.
‘Especially here in eastern Germany, this is a very sensitive topic,’ Maier told local newspapers, adding that curfews only work if they are accepted by the majority of the population. Opponents of the lockdown have held demonstrations across Germany, but particularly in the former east, which is more supportive of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. This latest announcement is likely to swell support for the AfD.
Despite this, Merkel knows she can ill afford another u-turn to follow on from her decision to retract an announcement about an Easter lockdown. To save face, she needs to follow through with her Covid plan, even if that means implementing an unpopular and politically toxic strategy.