In Germany, there is commotion about a new book, Ausbruch: Innenansichten einer Pandemie [Outbreak: Insights from Inside a Pandemic], in which two journalists describe meetings held during the corona crisis between federal chancellor Angela Merkel, and the 16 prime ministers of its federal constituent states.
Those meetings are frequent and held behind closed doors.
Recently, the weekly Die Zeit published a fragment from the book, which shows a striking similarity between these crisis meetings in Germany and the European Union summits held in Brussels.
What these meetings have in common is that they bring face to face the federal and federated levels – with the additional stress caused by the crisis.
In almost every sentence the name ‘Angela Merkel’ can be easily replaced by ‘Ursula von der Leyen’. And the prime ministers of the Länder [states] could play the role of the heads of state and government of the EU member states.
In Germany, the federal states have far-reaching powers. In Europe, member states retain a lot of power as well. And in both systems, the question is not just if leaders from the lower level are willing to cede power to the higher level if it serves the common good, but also, and more importantly: will they take responsibility, if they do and if they don’t?
On 16 November, during a long, tense meeting with the 16 prime ministers – held via a video link – Merkel sounds the alarm.
The number of infections is skyrocketing, she says. If Germany does not quickly introduce stricter rules, nationwide, many Germans will surely die.
She says that the regional approach, which worked well during the first wave, is no longer sufficient. Merkel want to discuss concrete proposals for the whole country during this meeting: more distancing in public transport and in school buses, for example, and a maximum of one playmate at home per child.
But health is not a federal competence in Germany. The Länder are responsible. The chancellor can propose national measures, but the 16 prime ministers must decide – unanimously.
Some constituent states are harder hit than others. Some prime ministers support Merkel’s proposals, others do not. Quite a few are annoyed, interpreting her proposals as a power-grab.
For Germany, read Brussels
Again, what makes this such a fascinating read is that this is exactly how it often works in Brussels. It also makes clear why few understand the EU – constantly shifting from one level to another – better than the Germans do: German and European decision-making are cut from the same cloth.
During the meeting, Merkel consistently advocates a common approach, in the German interest. She tries to convince the prime ministers with recent data and scientific reports. The 16, however, are constantly on their mobile phones, checking news sites in their regional state, where they must be re-elected.
Here, two realities clash: Merkel’s virus reality and the political reality of the prime ministers of the Länder – “facts of life”, as state premier Armin Laschet calls it.
One of these facts is that citizens are increasingly angry with the federal government in Berlin. They start disobeying, holding parties and demonstrations.
Even if the Länder are responsible, many hold Merkel responsible for all that goes wrong: from lockdowns in only mildly affected regions to the dysfunctional German corona app.
The prime ministers constantly remind the chancellor that they must listen to those voices, as they are democratically elected. As if Merkel were not.
She, in turn, reproaches them for failing to act during an emergency: “You are not deciding. And soon people will say again, ‘The Bund [Federation] is dawdling and doing everything wrong.'” Merkel looks at her screen, clearly frustrated. “You fail to decide”, she says, “and I will be judged on it.”
Sometimes, the book shows, the chancellor gets so frustrated that she asks for a short time-out to take a stroll and clear her head.
All this is very much like inside reports one gets on European Commission president von der Leyen discussing vaccines with the 27 national leaders.
Poland wants less Pfizer: too expensive. Austria blocks extra EU purchases if it doesn’t get extra doses. But ultimately, von der Leyen has to bear responsibility for the result – the lowest common denominator.
Germany is as strong as the Länder want it to be, the EU is as strong as the member states want it to be.
Germany, too, grew out of small states that began to cooperate more and more. But the distaste for the unitary state still runs deep, as the current crisis shows.
That explains why every crisis, both in Europe and in Germany, immediately leads to fierce debates about competences. Which level of government should be responsible for what? Should things be regulated differently?
Some think this bickering can be fatal to the EU.
But it probably won’t: this battle between different levels of governance is perfectly normal. It is also happening in some other federal countries, like Belgium and Austria.
And in Switzerland, too, there are echoes of Merkel’s clash with the constituent states: with all cantons having their own corona measures the federal state can hardly get a grip on the situation – but is loudly criticised for it. There is fuss about competencies everywhere, even in centralised France.
During that meeting on 16 November, Merkel did not get her way.
It is only on 15November 25, when the situation becomes really dire – exactly as Merkel predicted nine days earlier – that the 16 finally agree to some additional, national measures.
But it is already too little, too late. Yet it takes another 21 days for lockdowns to be introduced.
Hundreds of people have died unnecessarily in Germany. The chancellor fought hard to prevent this. Yet many now say: Merkel has lost control.
The key issue here is responsibility. As she herself observed, during one such meeting: “Actually, we must all take responsibility, also when things don’t go well.”
The same is true in Europe. But there it doesn’t happen either.