German states claim sole responsibility for coronavirus regulation, sidelining federal government

It is unclear whether the German states intend to follow the federal government's guidance, as they claim it is now solely within their purview. [EPA-EFE | Felipe Trueba]

Over the weekend, the leader of Thuringia announced plans to end coronavirus restrictions in the eastern German state and replace them with local measures. Saxony voiced its support for the idea, while other states quickly condemned the move, possibly heralding the end the country’s relatively harmonious federal coronavirus cooperation. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Responsibility for Germany’s coronavirus restrictions has always been in the hands of the country’s 16 state leaders, with advice and guidance coming from the federal government. Specific details and timing of measures have varied between states, but ultimately, state and federal leaders were able to reach nation-wide agreements following virtual summits. 

Asked in a press conference in mid-April about differences between state leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel responded: “the overall spirit is so much in agreement, it’s almost miraculous for a federal state.”

However, the time for mostly harmonious agreements could be coming to an end, as states diverge in their plans for easing coronavirus measures. 

Controversial plans for drastic easing

Following a cabinet meeting on Tuesday (26 May), Bodo Ramelow (Left), the premier of the Thuringia, said the state wants to move from “crisis mode into control mode.”

To that end, he wants to loosen state restrictions in early June. While the exact measures will be announced next week, he did clarify that this will mean maintaining the requirement to keep 1.5 m distance and wear a mask in crowded public spaces. 

Ramelow’s speech rolled back his comments from the weekend, when he told the newspaper Thüringer Allgemeine “after 6 June, I want to lift the general lockdown and replace it with a package of measures that emphasises local authorities.” 

Later, Saxony also called for a “paradigm shift.” “Instead of generally imposing restrictions as is the case now and naming many exceptions for what is possible again, everything will then be generally released and only the few exceptions that will still not be possible will be named,” State Health Minister Petra Köpping (SPD) said on Monday (25 May).

Similar to Ramelow, Köpping announced on Tuesday that Saxony will be keeping distance and mask requirements in place but will allow family get-togethers of up to 50 people and visits to retirement homes.

Other states quickly condemned Ramelow’s plan. Bavarian leader Markus Söder (CSU) said “we must massively react” if the state were to actually implement the plan. Social Democrat MP and health expert Karl Lauterbach was also critical, saying “this is clearly a mistake.”

Even less federal power

Although Thuringia’s and Saxony’s plans to relax restrictions are less drastic, the role of Germany’s federal government is now smaller than ever.

Baden-Württemberg’s leader Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) declared “the responsibility [for combatting the coronavirus] lies with the state premiers and districts” in an interview with the newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung

To that end, it is unclear how many states intend to follow the federal government’s guidance.

On Tuesday evening, the federal government and all 16 states agreed to extend the  current contact restrictions until 29 June in principle with a small bit of easing to allow for up to 10 people, or members of two households, to meet in public after 6 June. 

However, while all states signed onto the measures, Thuringia quickly asserted their right to ease restrictions earlier. Saxony, Hamburg, Baden-Württemberg, Bremen, and Brandenburg also still intend to proceed with their easing plans.

Groups across the political spectrum disagree with this reduced role for the federal government.

The Greens, Kretschmann’s own party, have called for “common nationwide criteria for [relaxing measures], including a common testing regime, testing obligations according to certain levels” in a press release. The party also lamented the “easing competition to outbid each other that we are currently experiencing.” 

Lauterbach also warned in a tweet that “we are leaving the path to which we owe our success.”

On the Christian Democrat side, Söder called for legal changes to ensure a larger role for the federal government in protecting public health, saying “honestly, I think it would be better if the federal government had more binding legal-normative power there than it does now.” 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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