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POLITICS

New head of Merkel’s CDU under fire for pandemic comments

Armin Laschet, the new head of Germany's conservative CDU party, is known as an ally of Angela Merkel -- but has come under fire for distancing himself from the chancellor's pandemic policy.

New head of Merkel's CDU under fire for pandemic comments
Laschet speaking on Wednesday in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

Laschet won the CDU leadership race in January on a promise to continue Merkel's moderate course when she retires this year, but is still struggling in public opinion polls seven months ahead of a general election.

With two crucial state elections looming in mid-March, Laschet this week laid into the Merkel government's coronavirus strategy, urging it not to “treat citizens like helpless children”.

READ ALSO: Succeeding Merkel: Chancellor's Ally Armit Laschet elected CDU party chief

But the comments have left the political centrist from Aachen, who turns 60 on Thursday, accused of flip-flopping and pandering to populists.

Merkel and Germany's regional leaders last week extended the country's partial lockdown until March 7th.

But they agreed that some measures could be relaxed once the incidence rate falls to 35 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.

The government had earlier set an incidence target of 50 but revised it downward due to concerns over more contagious virus variants.

“You can't keep inventing new limits as a way of preventing life from happening again,” railed Laschet on Monday during a CDU meeting in Baden-Württemberg — one of the two states holding elections in March.

'Clumsy populism'

“We can't measure our whole lives just by incidence rates,” Laschet said.

“There still seems to be this popular attitude of 'ban everything, be strict, treat citizens like helpless children'.”

Germany's Bild daily, long a vocal critic of the government's coronavirus policy, lauded Laschet for merely “saying out loud what many people are thinking”.

But others pointed out that, as the head of Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet had himself attended last week's meeting and signed off on the new threshold.

READ ALSO: Who is the new head of Germany's conservative CDU party?

The incidence rate for the whole of Germany was hovering at around 57 on Wednesday and had fallen below 50 in three states, including the capital Berlin.

Parts of the CDU have been crying out for a return to normality, urging the government to take into account not just the incidence rate but other factors such as the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital.

But Laschet's comments have given ammunition to his opponents, especially the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), currently in coalition with the CDU but becoming increasingly combative as the election draws near.

Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the SPD, accused Laschet of
flip-flopping and “clumsy populism”.

North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier Armin Laschet delivers a speech after being elected as CDU leader at a digital congress in Berlin on January 16th. Photo: AFP

'U-turn'

There was criticism too from the Green party, seen as a potential new coalition partner for the CDU in Germany's next government.

The CDU has seen its popularity slip in recent opinion polls, hurt by increasing public frustration with the government's recent handling of the pandemic.

But this is largely down to “the chaos of the vaccination campaign, rather than disaffection with the lockdown”, according to political scientist Oskar Niedermayer at Berlin's Free University.

Laschet's comments are a “mistake”, he told AFP: “This U-turn reinforces his image as a politician without a clear line of conduct in crisis management.”

Laschet has come under fire before over his handling of the pandemic in North Rhine-Westphalia.

During the first wave last year, he pushed aggressively for the loosening of restrictions — only to backtrack after a huge outbreak at a slaughterhouse.

The question of who will lead Germany's conservatives to the polls will be decided in the spring, with Laschet up against Markus Söder, the head of the CDU's sister party in Bavaria.

Söder has repeatedly taken a hard line when it comes to virus measures and did so again on Wednesday, citing the incidence rate of 35 as a firm marker.

He also seized the moment to tweet a photo featuring books on the architecture of the chancellery and the art of governing.

By Mathieu Foulkes

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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see MPs air their views on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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