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ANGELA MERKEL

Merkel wins surprise backing from Germany over EU aid U-turn

Chancellor Angela Merkel shattered a long-standing German taboo last week when she unexpectedly unveiled a plan to fund the EU's coronavirus recovery through shared debt.

Merkel wins surprise backing from Germany over EU aid U-turn
Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA

It was a stunning U-turn after years of German opposition to joint borrowing, but the risky political gamble appears to be paying off.

The veteran leader, set to end her political career next year, has already won the backing of key members of her conservative CDU party for the proposed €500 billion ($544 billion) EU recovery fund, aimed at helping the nations hardest hit by the pandemic.

Surveys show that a majority of Germans are also on board.

“I have no doubt that there is broad support for this proposal in the German national parliament,” Bundestag president and CDU heavyweight Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview with AFP.

The recovery plan, thrashed out with French President Emmanuel Macron, may ultimately never win over sceptical EU member states such as Austria and the Netherlands.

But observers say tectonic plates have started shifting in Germany and the debate about what it means to show European solidarity will never be the same again.

READ ALSO: Merkel and Macron propose €50 billion plan to relaunch EU economy

'Necessary'

The Merkel-Macron plan is “a necessary and important proposal during this time”, said Schaeuble, who is also a former finance minister and remains highly influential in Germany.

“It calls on Europe to use this crisis to become stronger and more dynamic,” he said.

Like Merkel, Schäuble has long resisted the idea of EU joint borrowing over fears that fiscally disciplined nations — such as Germany – would be forced to pay for the excesses of their less frugal partners — such as Italy or Greece.

During his eight years as Germany's powerful paymaster, Schaeuble was admired at home for his strict balanced budget policies.

But he became a hate figure abroad during the eurozone debt crisis for his insistence on tough austerity for debt-mired nations like Greece.

The coronavirus pandemic however requires a different response, he argued.

READ ALSO: Can Merkel rally Germans behind massive EU package?

In their landmark gambit, Merkel and Macron suggested that the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, borrow on the markets to raise the recovery funds.

The money would be handed out as grants to help the most stricken among the EU's 27 members bounce back, like Italy and Spain.

The 500 billion euros would be paid back through successive EU budgets, with Germany as Europe's top economy funding around 27 percent of it.

Top brass from Merkel's CDU endorsed the Franco-German plan at a meeting of the party's executive committee on Monday.

“Germany will only do well if Europe does well,” Merkel told participants, according to a source at the talks.

EU presidency

Merkel still faces some obstacles. The CDU's most conservative faction, known as the Values Union, has slammed the proposal.

The head of the faction, Alexander Mitsch, has urged German and European lawmakers to resist the planned fund, which he described as “another step” towards turning the European Union into a “debt union and a centralised state”.

Similar criticism has also come from Germany's far-right AfD, the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, and from the smaller pro-business FDP party.

But 51 percent of Germans support the Merkel-Macron effort, according to a survey by the Civey institute for Der Spiegel weekly. Around 34 percent of respondents opposed it.

It is an early victory for Merkel who is riding high in the polls over her coolheaded, science-based handling of the pandemic so far, which has helped keep Germany's COVID-19 deaths lower than in neighbouring nations.

With little left to lose as she readies to bow out at the next general election, slated for late 2021, observers say Merkel is staking much of her political capital on the recovery fund.

“She was eager to reaffirm Germany's European commitment after pretty harsh criticism from Italy and Spain” over a perceived lack of solidarity in the coronavirus crisis, a source close to Macron told AFP.

“She is also keeping in mind Germany's EU presidency from July. She wants to leave her mark.”

By Peter Wuertherich

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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