OPINION: Germany’s bewildering Covid rules show fierce regionalism is alive and well

Markus Söder
Markus Söder (CSU), state premier of Bavaria, sits at his desk to announce the latest round of Covid regulations after the summer break. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel
Long before today’s Federal Republic, Germany was always a country of stark regional differences. Nowhere has this been more striking than in the handling of the Covid crisis, which has often resulted in bizarre local laws, writes Brian Melican.

Writing when she travelled the German lands in 1716, Mary Wortley Montagu remarked that it was “impossible not to observe the difference between the free towns and those under the government of absolute princes, as all the little sovereigns of Germany are.” A good 300 years later, one might be tempted to make a similar observation: in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the state premiers and mayors of the 16 states in Germany have been ruling by decree since late March 2020 – and each has been decreeing rather differently from the other.

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Not that the historical analogy is perfect: currently, all of Germany’s “little sovereigns” enjoy something close to absolute power, as, under the state of emergency declared 18 months back, executive orders to combat the virus don’t pass through the usual parliamentary channels. And, ironically, when it comes to Covid regulations, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (named in reference to the old tradition of self-governing “free towns” as opposed to places under monarchical rule), is actually the most restrictive place in Germany.

That’s right: throughout 2021, Hamburg – once considered the country’s most licentious city and in possession of an iconic Soho-style backstreet named “Große Freiheit” (“Great Freedom”) – has consistently been the strictest when it comes to curbing personal freedoms to fight the pandemic. While people elsewhere in Germany were getting angry about the proposed 10pm curfew back in April, for instance, many Hamburgers were hoping the legislation would be passed so it could replace the 9pm curfew already put in place by our Mayor, Peter Tschentscher.

Lockdown in Hamburg
Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel during the Covid curfew. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

The strangest thing about differences in coronavirus regulations between states, however, is not the varying degree of strictness, but rather the sheer oddity of the innumerable permutations of busy-body details – often imposed with precious little grounding in any of the widely available knowledge about the virus. Yes, German federalism is so strong that its practitioners seem to actually believe it changes the rules of physics.

Regional coronavirus restrictions: the devil is in the detail

As I noted on holiday last week, in restaurants in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, it seems to have become a requirement that four-person tables be set with couples sat next to each other, leaving the two chairs opposite them empty to ensure that there is enough distance between them and the next couple (who are of course sitting with their backs to them). Couples looking to dine together or families with children have to find a restaurant happy to leave a whole table empty between them and any other groups. Clearly, in the fiefdom of Manuela Schwesig – Mecklenburg’s state premier – aerosols only spread in one direction.

Or let’s take North Rhine-Westphalia, which opened its swimming pools earlier than Hamburg back in spring, but where, as I discovered on a brief visit in September, coronavirus is so contagious that masks have to be worn not only on entry (like in Hamburg) but also from changing cabins to poolside. Whether you are actually allowed to take them off in the showers (usually situated between cabins and the water’s edge) and where it best to put them to avoid them becoming wet (and thus, according to medical professionals, ineffective) is a lively area of debate for the state’s public health officials, swimmers, and Germany’s answer to Baywatch lifeguards: the Bademeister.

And then there’s Hamburg, where, unlike in nearby MeckPom or neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein, you apparently can catch coronavirus outside from somebody standing several feet away and therefore have to wear a mask at open-air markets. That’s unless you are a vendor, of course, in which case you are no longer a danger to yourself or your customers and may remove your mask.

Diners in Schwerin
Diners sit at a distance from one another at a restaurant in Schwerin. In Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, it seems aerosols only travel in one direction. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ulrich Perrey

Far be it from me to question Mr. Tschentscher’s understanding of how virus transmission works (he was a doctor before becoming mayor), but it feels more than just a little unscientific to be wearing a mask outside in the fresh air while being sold a turnip by someone without one. Then again, they say that Hamburg has always been in hock to the interests of its merchant class, so I suppose it should be no surprise that, when the usual rules of democracy are suspended, people selling things end up with more rights than those buying them…

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Not just Covid: Germany’s Bundesländer like having their cake and eating it

There’s nothing more German than fierce regionalism – and few things more German than never-ending debate about whether this is an advantageous or detrimental characteristic. The most German thing, though, is for states to delegate downwards and blame upwards. And now that, on November 25th, the federally mandated state of emergency is set to expire, all of these mechanisms are on full display.

The fierce regionalism can be seen in the fact that, even with nationwide legislation in place since late March 2020, Germany’s 16 states have managed to install a truly bewildering array of contradictory public health regulations. And when it comes to the debate about federalism, politicians, scientists, and pundits like myself have spent countless hours discussing whether minimal differences in coronavirus regulations between states represent a fruitful environment in which to gather data or are actually the hallmark of a Banana Republic. And then there’s the way states have managed to shift the blame for unpopular decisions onto Berlin, in which Corona is a masterclass.

Indeed, as November 25th approaches, the state premiers and mayors have been taking to the airwaves to demand both that nationwide laws be kept and that they must be able to set their own measures against the virus. Daniel Günther’s recent cryptic demands are symptomatic of this. Confused? Behind the doublespeak it’s actually very simple: what they want is to be able to continue mandating potentially unpopular measures as they see fit while claiming that they have no choice because of federal legislation. If they actually have to get their own parliaments and senates to pass laws, they might also have to explain the rationale behind them (which, as we have seen, may be somewhat dubious) – and put their weight behind divisive policies.

Angela Merkel and Daniel Günther
Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) with Schleswig-Holstein state premier Daniel Günther. Covid has been a masterclass in shifting responsibility from the states to the federal government. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

Yet when it comes to federalism, coronavirus is not revealing anything we didn’t already know. From big issues like the structure of school systems down to the minutiae of how smoking bans are implemented, each and every part of Germany thinks it knows better than all the others; but if something goes wrong or is unpopular, it’s Berlin’s or Brussels’ fault. Take Bavaria’s tortured health policy history, where back in 2009, for instance, the state’s then health minister – a certain Markus Söder – voluntarily imposed Germany’s strictest smoking ban before blaming Brussels for making him introduce a smoking ban at all after his party lost vote share.

So it’s hardly surprising that, now as one of Germany’s “little sovereigns”, Söder is trying to pull off the same trick with coronavirus restrictions. As long has he and the other 15 heads of states are allowed to behave like “absolute princes”, they’ll get to avoid debate about exactly which of their measures against Covid are sensible and which are just pointless. November 25th won’t – and can’t yet – be “Freedom Day”, but it cannot come soon enough.

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