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Merkel faces growing criticism over German coronavirus strategy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised at home and abroad for her reaction to the coronavirus crisis, but as voices of discontent grow louder, support for the government's strategy could be on the wane.

Merkel faces growing criticism over German coronavirus strategy
Merkel in the Bundestag last week. Photo: DPA

Though Germany began to lift lockdown measures last week, Merkel has urged caution and slammed growing impatience to shake off the curbs on public life introduced a month ago to slow contagion.

The measures have proved successful so far, with Germany maintaining a mortality rate of just 3.7 percent in the pandemic, far lower than major European neighbours.

The restrictions have also met with public approval. Almost three quarters of the population said they supported them in a Kantar poll published Friday.

In full-blown crisis just a few months ago, Merkel's CDU/CSU conservative alliance has meanwhile rebounded in the polls, jumping ten points in the last two weeks to 38 percent.

READ ALSO: 'Orgies' and squabbling: Why Germany is not in control of the coronavirus pandemic as much as it appears

'Life and death'

Yet the mood could be about to change.

Wolfgang Schäuble, an elder statesman of German politics and current president of the Bundestag lower house, warned that extended restrictions would impinge on fundamental citizens' rights.

“When I hear that protecting lives should come above everything else, I don't think that is absolutely true,” he told Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel on Sunday.

Merkel also provoked the ire of regional leaders when she suggested last week that they had been too eager to relax restrictions.

Armin Laschet, state premier for Germany's most populous region North-Rhine Westphalia and a candidate to succeed Merkel as CDU leader, protested that the discussion over how to lift lockdown measures was “appropriate”.

“It is of course still a question of life and death,” he told public broadcaster ARD on Sunday night.

Yet he insisted that the negative effects of lockdown must also be “weighed up”, pointing in particular to children “who have had to stay at home for the last six weeks”.

Angela Merkel and Armin Laschet at a CDU event in February 2020. Photo: DPA

He also attacked what he saw as the pessimistic predictions of some medical experts, pointing out that “40 percent of intensive care beds are empty” in his state.

Germany's most popular newspaper Bild echoed Laschet's words in a scathing editorial on Monday, accusing Merkel of being “stubborn, pig-headed and bossy”.

'End of national unity'

Largely muted in the crisis until now, Germany's opposition parties are also beginning to grow more critical of the government's course.

The Greens, still the highest polling opposition party despite a recent slump, have urged more caution. On Sunday, co-leader Annalena Baerbock slammed plans to allow Bundesliga football to resume without spectators from next month.

The leader of the liberal FDP Christian Lindner warned that consensus over coronavirus measures was breaking down, declaring the “end of national unity”.

His party's concern over both the fate of small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the erosion of civil liberties, is also shared by more extreme groups.

Far left and far right protesters have assembled in Berlin every Saturday in recent weeks, calling for “democratic resistance” against what they claim are authoritarian and unconstitutional coronavirus restrictions.

Police arrested around 100 of an estimated 1,000 protesters last Saturday and a further demonstration is planned for May 1st.

The far-right AfD, Germany's largest opposition party by number of MPs, has also declared its opposition to lockdown.

“The absolute shutdown was avoidable and (the government) is now missing a chance to end it,” claimed AfD lawmaker Sebastian Münzenmaier, adding that “all shops must be opened: give the people back their liberty!”.

Weekly newspaper Die Zeit warned the AfD could “profit from the long term consequences” of the virus such as mass unemployment.

READ ALSO: 'Let's not risk a setback': Merkel warns against easing coronavirus rules too quickly

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POLITICS

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

While far-right groups have been celebrating, other politicians in Germany see the results as worrying. Here's a look at the reaction.

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

According to initial projections following Italy’s election on Sunday, the coalition led by Georgia Meloni and her radical right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party has won a majority of seats in the two chambers of the Italian parliament and will lead the next government. 

Meloni is a euro-sceptic who has previously spoken about having an “aversion” to Germany and referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as “socialist” while on the campaign trail.

However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s deputy spokesman Wolfgang Buechner told reporters on Monday: “We of course have to wait for the official final result from this election but at this time what the chancellor would say is that Italy is a very Europe-friendly country with very Europe-friendly citizens and we assume that won’t change.” 

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A Finance Ministry spokesperson added that Berlin expected the new Italian government to continue to respect the stability pact that sets the fiscal rules for the eurozone.

Despite these reassurances from the central government, German politicians in the EU parliament have expressed concern about the new direction for Italy.  

Rasmus Andresen, spokesman for the German Greens in the EU Parliament, said the “unprecedented Italian slide to the right” will have massive repercussions for Europe and for the European Union.

“Italy, as a founding member and the third strongest economy in the EU, is heading for an anti-democratic and anti-European government.”

Though Meloni no longer wants Italy to leave the eurozone, she has said that Rome must assert its interests more and has policies that look set to challenge Brussels on everything from public spending rules to mass migration.

The Greens’ co-leader in Brussels, Thomas Waitz, told Die Welt that the EU can only function if it sticks together, for example on cooperation in energy markets, decisions on Russian sanctions or dealing with the Covid crisis. “Meloni, on the other hand, would back national go-it-alones. It can be a disaster for Europe,”  he said. 

READ ALSO: Euro falls to 20-year low against US dollar

The FDP’s expert on Europe, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, takes a similar view. He said on ARD’s Morgenmagazin that cooperation with Italy in the European Union will become more difficult. He said that it will now be much more difficult to achieve unity in Europe, especially on the issues of migration, reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the single market.

Speaking on RTL, Green Party leader Omid Nouripour called the election results in Italy “worrying” and pointed out that people within the Italian right-wing nationalist alliance have “very close entanglements with the Kremlin”.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that people in Moscow also popped the corks last night,” he said.

Germany’s own far-right party – Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – has been celebrating the victory. 

AfD member of the Bundestag Beatrix von Storch wrote “We cheer with Italy!” on Twitter late Sunday evening.

Referring to the recent elections in Sweden, where the right was also successful, von Storch wrote: “Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: left-wing governments are so yesterday.”

Her party colleague Malte Kaufmann tweeted, “A good day for Italy – a good day for Europe.”

With reporting from AFP

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