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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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TRAVEL NEWS

Germany approves €9 public transport ticket for summer

It's official - people in Germany will get cheap public transport for three months this summer after the €9 ticket was approved.

Germany approves €9 public transport ticket for summer

As part of a host of energy relief measures to cushion the cost of living crisis, the German government is offering cheap public transport for the months of June, July and August. 

Monthly tickets will be available at a price of €9 (or €27 for all three months) and they will allow people to use all buses, trains and trams in local and regional transport throughout the country.

So even if people buy the ticket in Munich, they will also be able to use local and regional buses, trains and trams elsewhere in Germany, whether it’s Hamburg or Cologne. 

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

The ticket will not be valid, however, on long-distance transport such as ICE trains or Flixbus.

The offer was put together by the coalition government – made of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the FDP.

The Bundestag voted for the initiative on Thursday, agreeing to give federal states a subsidy of €2.5 billion to fund the project. 

And on Friday, the Bundesrat – the upper house of parliament that represents the states – gave the green light to the ticket, paving the way for it to begin on June 1st. 

States had wanted an extra €1.5 billion funding boost to deal with lost revenue, however it would have been hugely controversial if they had blocked it.

READ ALSO: German states threaten to block the €9 ticket in the Bundesrat

During a debate on Thursday, federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) said the €9 project was “already a success”.

“All of Germany is talking about local public transport,” he said, adding that it is also being viewed with interest abroad. 

READ ALSO: ‘Fantastic’: Your verdict on Germany’s €9 ticket

The Left party (Die Linke) voted in favour of the €9 ticket, but leader Bernd Riexinger said he thought the plan didn’t go far enough. “Three months is simply too little,” he said.

The opposition, however, slammed the move. Christian Democrat Michael Donth called it an “expensive experiment”.

Rail operator Deutsche Bahn will offer the ticket for sale as early as Monday. Local public transport providers across the country are also preparing their ticket machines for the initiative. It will also be available in travel centres.

People with subscriptions to local transport will automatically benefit from the offer. 

In some regions, such as Stuttgart and Freiburg, the ticket is already available for purchase.

READ ALSO: How to get a hold of the €9 ticket in Berlin

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