How Merkel lost control

Trust in the German government is at its lowest in postwar history.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

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Topics Politics World

Covid might be a global problem that doesn’t stop at borders. But the pandemic is shaking up German national politics like nothing before. For the first time in her 16-year reign, last week Angela Merkel publicly, on camera, apologised for a mistake.

And what a terrible mistake it was. On Tuesday last week, she and a handful of state premiers announced a hard lockdown for Easter. Even supermarkets were ordered to stay closed for nearly five days (with the exception of a few hours on Saturday). No one, not even the representatives of big business, had expected such a drastic step. Most people had already made plans with their families – relying on earlier promises that this year’s Easter would be a bit freer than last year’s. Adding insult to injury, Merkel described the lockdown euphemistically as a ‘period of rest’, a ‘Ruhepause’. Even within her own party, the CDU, this exacerbated a sense of despair that has been setting in for some time. Days before Merkel’s announcement, Germany’s top pollster, Allensbach, had released a shocking new poll, showing the CDU sliding to just 27 per cent.

And then, on Wednesday, Merkel backtracked and apologised. She asked the public to ‘forgive me for my mistake’. Though she claimed the plan had the ‘best of intentions’, she acknowledged that: ‘Far too many questions, from missing wages through to the loss of time in factories and facilities, could not be adequately answered in time.’ Given the poor poll showings and Merkel’s public admission of failure, the demise of the CDU – an unthinkable scenario until very recently – now seems within reach.

How has the government reached this new low, and when exactly did it lose control? The pandemic has put all the weaknesses of the Merkel government into the spotlight: its risk-aversion, its habit of making up policies on the hoof, its aversion to long-term strategies and plans. And, of course, its utter detachment from the public. ‘Have any of these people ever bought their own food?’, asked a frustrated CDU MP, after the Easter lockdown was announced. She was worried about how she was going to communicate such an obviously mad policy – closing supermarkets for days – to her voters.

It is hugely ironic that this crisis, which only months ago led many commentators to hail Merkel’s government as unimpeachable, now seems to be bringing about the government’s downfall.

As chancellor, Merkel has always drawn her strength to a large extent from her international role and standing. ‘She has her problems’, many in Germany would say, ‘but she is a very respected EU leader’. Of course there was much to criticise about her domestic policies, such as the dire state of the economy even pre-pandemic. In 2019, Germany was suffering from abysmally low growth. But compared to other countries, Germany was still doing all right – and this, too, was attributed to Merkel’s prowess.

But now, Germans can see that their government is incapable of meeting its most basic promises. In autumn, Germans were told to lock down to ‘save Christmas’. In January the plan was to save Easter. You get the picture. And worst of all: Germany is falling behind. The pandemic has not just put politicians under pressure internally — it has also drawn us into an increased international competition. Everyone wants to know who’s dealing best with the pandemic. Carefully crafted charts, some pretending to be more objective than they are, show where each country stands. They are all over social and traditional media, and the results haven’t been flattering for Germany.

Covid-related deaths have now passed 70,000. Infections are rising rapidly. Then there is the severity of the lockdown, measured by Oxford University’s ‘stringency index’. Germany has been moving up this international league table as the pandemic has progressed – largely because the government has no better ideas than tightening the lockdown.

To see how the government really lost control, we have to go back to the autumn of 2020. That’s when the second hard lockdown was announced. In December, journalist Gabor Steingart wrote that while the German government still praised itself as a ‘role model’ for pandemic management, its lead in keeping death rates down – so widely admired in the first months of 2020 – had all but disappeared.

Yet none of these problems alone would have cost the government so much public approval had it not been for another chart: the one showing the number of people who have received the vaccine. It is the failure to immunise people against Covid at a reasonable speed that is central to the CDU’s current crisis. While over 40 per cent of the British population will have received at least one Covid vaccine by the end of this month, Germany will have barely managed 10 per cent. This means that many vulnerable people are still exposed to the virus – and potential new mutations can develop and spread faster. The government’s plan for a hard Easter lockdown was a response to this failure. But Merkel’s arrogance, in trying to force through yet more authoritarian measures, caused public fury. If there had been a spirit of optimism and a feeling that things were moving in the right direction, people would have been more understanding. What’s worrying is that it wasn’t just the chancellor – most of the minister-presidents of the federal states were involved in the plan, too. The decision was made in the middle of the night, cooked up behind closed doors.

The government lost control of the virus, and then lost control of the narrative, too. In the past, Merkel could always present herself as the one to bring matters back under control. This was the case in the Euro crisis, and even in the refugee crisis at first (though she did eventually lose control).

Merkel’s role as the unofficial leader of the EU has helped her hugely. Problems were ‘exported’ to the international sphere, and deals were cobbled together. But now, the German government’s crisis and the EU crisis go hand in hand. In early January, Ugur Sahin, the founder of BioNTech – the company behind the Pfizer vaccine – raised questions about the EU’s reluctance to order vaccines. ‘Obviously, the impression was: we’re getting enough, it’s not going to be that bad, and we’ve got it under control’, he said. It soon became clear that not only had the EU been careless and ill-prepared — so had the German government. How could it, people rightly asked, outsource something so important to Brussels – an administration headed by the widely discredited Ursula von der Leyen?

At the beginning of February, Sahin had to explain to the government, and to the public, how complex the manufacturing processes of the novel mRNA vaccines would be. Production, he explained patiently, depends on so many variables – not least international supply chains. It couldn’t just be ramped up at the government’s bidding. Despite all these problems, Merkel still insisted in February that no mistakes had been made. We are right to trust the EU with procurement, she said. Many seconded her: it sent an important message of European solidarity, they claimed.

But this is where the next problem came into play: the vaccine crisis has also weakened Merkel’s leadership role in Europe. Not just Germans, but all Europeans, have been astonished by her government’s bumbling. There have been reports of countless doses of vaccines lying about in fridges, despite people urgently needing them. Because there have been such strict rules as to who should be allowed to receive them, vaccines which were not picked up (because people didn’t show up to their appointment) went unused.

Then there were the confusing messages about the safety and the temporary suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But the core problem is that there just aren’t enough vaccines, and this has pulled all of Europe down. What’s the point of solidarity, people rightly ask, if everyone gets left behind? Any talk of Germany’s role as the locomotive of Europe seems to belong to a distant past.

By March, the government’s and the EU’s troubles were obvious to everyone. ‘Dear Brits, we envy you!’, said a headline on the front page of Bild, Germany’s biggest newspaper. The media have blasted Germany’s ‘vaccination disgrace’. One outlet even asked: ‘What has become of us? Are we a joke?’

Will the government now succeed in keeping its promise that every citizen will receive at least a first vaccination offer by the end of summer? A joke — that it hasn’t yet specified which summer — is now doing the rounds. One thing is for sure: trust in the old institutions – be it Merkel’s CDU or the EU – is at a lower point than it has ever been in recent decades. With an election coming up in six months, the pressure is on.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl’s Brexit – Demokratischer Aufbruch in Großbritannien is out now.

Picture by: Getty.

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