Angela Merkel and the prime ministers are working on a plan to end the lockdown. After long discussions in the Chancellery, the harmony is as good as established – when suddenly it still rattles.
Nine hours of relaxation exercises
It is exactly 7 p.m. on Wednesday evening when something very strange happens on the first floor of the Chancellery. Not far from the room where the journalists are waiting for the press conference, the elevator door suddenly opens – and comes out: the Chancellor. She is carrying a handbag and takes a few steps, just as if she wanted to go home now. Suddenly she looks a little puzzled, turns around and disappears back into the elevator. The explosive question remains in the room: Has Angela Merkel lost her bearings?
Of course, there is a certain probability that you will meet the Chancellor in the Federal Chancellery. But actually she was believed to be in the video conference with the Prime Minister at the time, in the middle of the discussion about possible relaxation of public life and at the side of the Governing Mayor of Berlin, who is leading this meeting with her. But Merkel had obviously taken a short break and then, well, not lost, but made a mistake on the floor.
She must have found her place again, because about an hour later she makes a compromise proposal at the meeting, which is accepted three hours later and presented to the public after just five hours. The press conference begins at 11:46 p.m., a total of nine and a half hours behind the Chancellor and the country leaders. But at least, says Merkel, she can still greet the journalists with a “good evening” and doesn’t have to say “good morning” just yet.
It was an “intense but also an important debate,” reports Merkel. After all, after the long lockdown, they are now entering a “new phase”, not carelessly, “but with justified hope”. Michael Müller, the incumbent chairman of the conference of prime ministers, says it is “perhaps the most sensitive phase” of fighting the pandemic. And Markus Söder, Müller’s deputy, has – as so often – come up with a handy combination of words: A triad of “caution, trust and responsibility” is now needed. If you experience the Bavarian Prime Minister in such a statesmanlike manner at this moment, you hardly think it possible that he had recently entered into a verbal scuffle with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, after which one can only be glad that video conferences make physical violence impossible.
But this dispute, which will be discussed later, only marked the end of the session. In the beginning it was about the status of vaccination and testing in Germany for several hours. As is well known, there are deficits that should be remedied as quickly as possible. Because vaccination and testing, as the Chancellor puts it, should now be the decisive helpers to ensure that spring 2021 will not be like spring last year: instead of a lockdown, the openings should now come.
The easing should be secured with quick tests in test centers and soon also self-tests at home. Above all, according to Merkel, the aim is “to get the vaccine to people as quickly as possible”. The Prime Ministers believed and they, the Chancellor admits, “that we still have room for improvement”. Who wanted to contradict?
Merkel, her Vice Chancellor Scholz, the Prime Ministers and, last but not least, their most important officials had been working on a system for days that would allow shops, cultural institutions, sports facilities and finally the catering trade to reopen – provided that the number of infections is favorable. Exactly these benchmarks were the subject of the debates: the cautious wanted to wait for incidences of less than 35, others wanted to allow more from 50 or even allow easing for less than 100 infections in seven days under 100,000 inhabitants.
In order to make a compromise possible, Merkel finally suggested in the video conference that all kinds of easing should be made possible not only instead of an incidence of less than 35, but already from an incidence of less than 50 – gradually and with an emergency brake that, in the worst case, reverses everything when the number of infections rises again.
Initially, the compromise does not go down equally well with everyone
There were different positions on this proposal at the meeting: Söder campaigned for it with verve. “We have to go a way that holds us together,” appealed the Bavarian. And if “the most cautious”, by which he should have meant Merkel and himself, among others, made this proposal, it should be accepted. Hesse’s Prime Minister Volker Bouffier agreed (“I am in favor, dear Markus, that we do it as Angela suggests”), Hamburg’s first mayor Peter Tschentscher, however, turned out to be a little more cautious than the most cautious. Merkel’s offer was almost too loose for him, he was quoted as saying.
After a one-hour break, which was used for discussions in a very small group, the compromise was accepted in principle. “The whole thing is a concept of reliability,” Merkel summed up at the press conference. It is proceeding step-by-step, and it was “very, very important” to her not to “tie up packages that are too big”. Michael Müller presented a graphic on which the individual steps are visually represented and proudly announced that the plan would fit on one page. Everyone can now “understand what is the perspective for me”.
After this agreement, the video conference could have ended collegially. However, this stood in the way of item 12, the hardship fund for companies that have not yet benefited from the various aid programs. The fund itself is not the problem, but the financing is. Half and half between the federal government and the federal states were provided for in the decision paper. One or the other prime minister wanted to postpone the decision again, which Olaf Scholz responded with a surprisingly brusque announcement: “There is this thing or not at all,” said the finance minister. He will not agree to any other consensus.
According to reports, it was less the content than the tone that irritated some participants. Markus Söder snapped back that it wasn’t Scholz’s money, after all he wasn’t Chancellor, which the minister acknowledged with a smile, which caused Söder to say that he didn’t have to grin like that. The Bavarian Prime Minister was even given the question of what Scholz had drunk.
When asked what had happened there, Söder replied later at the press conference that one shouldn’t put every word on the gold scales. “I really appreciate Mr. Scholz”, you usually work well together. But “every now and then we just have a different point of view”. The Finance Minister’s appearance was “very pointed,” he replied. In the meantime they have been in contact again. “I wouldn’t say we are one heart and one soul, but it’s all right again.”
If one were to formulate otherwise like Söder, one could say: In the relationship between already appointed and potential candidates for chancellor, not everything is always a triad of caution, trust and responsibility. It just rattles. Incidentally, the Chancellor smiled mildly at Söder’s explanations.