BERLIN (Reuters) – It was shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday, March 22 when Angela Merkel asked for a respite after hours of dead-end discussions with her deputy and 16 German prime ministers on how to stop the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After winning international acclaim for its initial response to last year’s pandemic, Germany is struggling. The number of patients in intensive care was approaching the peak of the first wave of the previous year, and vaccine rollout was progressing very slowly.
Merkel, in the final months of her 16-year rule, told the prime minister she wanted to extend the national lockdown and tighten movement restrictions, effectively confining Germans in their homes during the upcoming Easter holidays.
The leaders of the country are not all games. Some rejected plans for its chief of staff, Helge Braun, to impose a curfew. Others, from the north, wanted vacations on the condition that they were allowed.
“That’s not the right answer at this time,” Merkel sighed in front of a giant screen showing 14 regional leaders attending virtually the meeting.
A year after the pandemic, Germany’s patchy federal system is beginning to break down. The union between Berlin and the regions that marked the first year of the crisis unraveled as many of the state’s prime ministers, facing pressure from business and voters, urged life to return to normal.
The approach to federal elections in September has strained those political threads even further.
State leaders including North Rhine-Westphalia prime minister Armin Laschet, the chairman of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and his future successor, are more eager to open up as they await elections in September, when Merkel resigns.
Merkel, by contrast, who doesn’t have to face voter rulings anymore, wants to multiply with her push for tougher action. He even publicly criticized Laschet for the lax restriction policies in his state.
Fractured federal-state relations are not entirely to blame for Germany’s groping pandemic response: Berlin has also been accused of being cautious and investing too much faith in the European Union for its vaccine rollout. But they have become an obstacle to taking swift and coordinated action as patience is running low on all sides, resulting in policy changes and waning support for Merkel’s conservative camp.
The increasingly strained relationship between Merkel and the country’s leaders “has only exacerbated the pandemic of mismanagement and is again hurting the CDU and CSU,” said Naz Masraff of political risk consultancy Eurasia.
Irritated by the deadlock at last week’s talks, Merkel turned to her chief of staff Braun, a 48-year-old doctor with intensive care experience, and asked her other advice.
The break is planned for 15 minutes but lasts six hours. The Conservative and Social Democrat Prime Ministers split into separate chatter. Hanging on the left, Bodo Ramelow, Prime Minister of Linke’s far left in Thuringia, turns to Reiner Haseloff of neighboring Saxony Anhalt, and they spend their time exploring the different screen backgrounds of the video conferencing.
Finally, Braun came back with plans to turn off the circuit breakers for five days during Easter. Since shops in Germany are already closed on Easter Friday, Sunday and Monday, they only need to be closed for two extra days – Thursday and Saturday. Merkel implemented the plan by state leaders and Deputy Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the leftist candidate for Chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
They agreed that Merkel closed the meeting at 2.30am, and presented the plan to journalists with the prime ministers of Bavaria and Berlin.
Then the trouble started. Merkel’s own broader camp balked at it.
At 10:45 am Alexander Dobrindt, deputy leader of his conservative bloc in parliament, called for “remedial”. Then Interior Minister Horst Seehofer complained that churches would be reduced to online services at Easter.
Resistance grew and on Wednesday morning Merkel made a swift and extraordinary decision: cancel the plan. Calling the state prime minister again online, he informed them of the turnaround and at 12:30 pm spoke to the nation.
“This fault is mine alone,” he said of the chancellor. “I ask forgiveness from all citizens of the country.”
NAME AND SHAME
The unusual four-minute mea culpa proved to be a clever tactic. Merkel won praise from both her own camp and the opposition for her honesty, and attention quickly focused on the country’s leaders – who approved of the plan – and on the dysfunction of their meetings with the chancellor.
“What some commentators see as a sign of weakness is actually a way to go from the point of defense to attack,” said a person close to Merkel, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The point of attack was aimed at the state prime minister. Even Laschet did not escape.
In her talk show Sunday evening, Merkel accused her and several other state leaders of ignoring a March 3 agreement on how to manage the national lockdown.
As federal territories hold power over health and safety issues, Merkel, still Germany’s most popular politician, uses such name-and-shame tactics to persuade the country’s leaders to take tougher action.
His popularity is helping: a survey by Civey’s poll for the Augsburger Allgemeine daily showed two-thirds of the 5,002 people questioned this week supported Merkel’s approach and believed she should intervene more strongly in the state’s pandemic response.
He gained traction.
On Tuesday, Brandenburg tightened its guidelines and Laschet said his country had imposed a so-called “emergency brake” by asking people to test negative before visiting several shops.
While the politicians are fighting, time is running short.
German vaccine supplies will increase from April, although changing guidance on AstraZeneca injections has led many Germans to stop doing it. The country’s leading virologist has warned that tougher lockdowns will be needed. Nothing to see.
That determination hurts the CDU / CSU alliance, which has dropped 10 points in opinion polls since early February.
“We are in a very sad state at the moment, and we have to get out of it,” complained a conservative lawmaker. “I’ve never had a mood like this in our ranks before.”
Written by Paul Carrel; Edited by Alexandra Hudson