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COVID-19 VACCINES

ANALYSIS: Will Germany introduce a vaccine mandate this year?

The German government will vote on the introduction of a general Covid vaccine mandate in April. But with numerous bills competing in the Bundestag, will any of them be able to get enough support to pass?

Vaccine sceptic
"Vaccine mandate? No thanks," reads a sticker on the back of a man's jacket at an anti-vax demo in Berlin on March 18th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Germany has been discussing the product of a population-wide vaccine mandate since November 2021, but progress on the issue has been incredibly slow.

A brief review of the first debate on the mandate in the Bundestag on Thursday gives an indication of why. 

A number of different parliamentary factions and alliances have formed around different views on the controversial topic. Some are calling for a more hard-line version of the mandate, others calling for a softer version, and some reject the idea entirely. 

Buzzing away in the background, there are also fundamental disagreements around more practical questions, such as whether to introduce a vaccine register or track the vaccinations a different way, such as through insurance companies.

READ ALSO: German parliament to vote on general vaccine mandate in April

As politicians took to the podium to make their speeches on Thursday, there were signs that the past few months have only solidified these positions.

If the numbers of the cross-party factions remain the same until the vote in April, there will be no majority for any of the proposals, which could ultimately mean no general mandate.

This would clearly be seen as win by those against a mandate and would come as a major blow to the traffic-light coalition, who have struggled to unify around any one plan. 

But it remains to be seen whether some pro-mandate MPs could modify their positions to ensure that at least one version of the general mandate succeeds.

Here’s what the situation looks like right now. 

What proposals are on the table?

There are currently two bills in favour of general vaccine mandates competing for votes in parliament.

The first is a general mandate for all over-18s put forward by a group of SPD, FDP and Green Party politicians. If this bill passes, all adults who have lived in Germany for at least six months would have to provide proof of full vaccination or recovery after October 1st this year. There would be exceptions for under-18s and anyone with a medical condition or those for whom vaccination is not recommended, such as women in the first three months of pregnancy. Details of the bill would be reviewed every three months and the legislation would expire at the end of 2023. 

The second is a proposal for a vaccine mandate for over-50s and a mandatory consultation for all other adults. This bill was put forward by a cross-party group of MPs surrounding FDP health expert Andrew Ullmann, including a number of SPD and Green Party politicians. If passed, all over-18s would have to provide proof a medical consultation or vaccination certificate by September 15th, while over-50s would be required to provide proof of vaccination or recovery by this date. 

Elderly man vaccination

An elderly man receives his Covid vaccination in Springe, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ole Spata

MPs will also consider a third bill put forward by the FDP’s Wolfgang Kubicki, the Left Party’s Sahra Wagenknecht and a handful of other MPs from the CDU/CSU, Left Party and Green Party. This bill rejects the idea of a vaccine mandate and proposes a number of other measures to improve the take-up of vaccines instead. These include: investigating the current immunity status of the population and the improvements needed to ease the burden on hospitals; writing to citizens personally to invite them to a vaccination appointment; offering multilingual advice centres and stepping up targeted promotion campaigns, particularly in community groups, sports clubs and religious centres. 

Have the opposition parties put anything forward?

As well as bills setting out positions and plans for the mandate (or lack of one), there are also two opposition motions up for consideration.

Some CSU and CDU MPs have already indicated support for one or more of the bills put forward, but the conservatives have also put forward their own draft law. This draft envisions the establishment of a national vaccine register to provide accurate data on the current vaccination status of different population groups and individuals. It also foresees a reactivation of the vaccination campaign to target hard-to-reach groups, the expansion of vaccination infrastructure and an increased offer in places like vets and dentists, and the potential for a “vaccine mechanism” if a more worrying variant comes along. This mechanism would allow the introduction of a targeted vaccine mandate for certain groups such as elderly people and key workers.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has also put forward a draft. This draft rejects a vaccine mandate as “disproportionate” and also calls for the current vaccine mandate for health workers to be scrapped. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s Covid vaccine mandate for health staff

What are the arguments for each position?

Those in favour of a wide-ranging mandate for adults say that it’s the only way to prevent hard lockdowns and restrictions come autumn, when experts argue there’s serious danger of the health services becoming overburdened. 

While the slightly milder Omicron variant is dominant, now is the time to protect the population against newer, more harmful variants, they argue.

“The probability that we won’t face any difficulties in battling the corona pandemic in autumn is almost zero,” Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) argued in the Bundestag debate. “It’s about as likely as autumn never arriving. We have to prepare.” 

Others argued that it was unfair for a small percentage of anti-vaxxers to impede the freedom of everyone else. Emilia Fester (Greens), the youngest MP in the Bundestag, addressed her comments to the AfD in the debate, saying: “If they and their ‘friends of freedom’ had simply allowed themselves to be vaccinated at a time when most of us were so sensible and took this simple step, we would now have our freedom back again.” 

Emilia Fester

Green Party MP Emilia Fester speaks at the vaccine mandate debate on March 17th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Those pushing for a more targeted version of the vaccine mandate say that the severity of Covid-19 differs among different segments of the population. While most younger people tend to have a relatively mild case of Covid, they say, unvaccinated over-50s are particularly at risk of severe illness and even death.

There are also some key differences between the perspectives of the two groups lobbying against a vaccine mandate.

The group led by Wolfgang Kubicki (FDP) acknowledge the value of vaccination but argue that the decision should be made by individuals rather than the state. In contrast, the AfD motion questions whether vaccines are useful in the fight against Covid at all.

“An overload of hospitals endangering the health system has never existed, does not exist, and is not imminent,” claimed AfD leader Alice Weidel in the Bundestag debate. “There is no constitutionally permissible justification for the introduction of a general vaccination mandate.” 

READ ALSO: ‘Doubtful’: German government rows over general vaccine mandate

Who could change in the run-up to April?

With the house splintering into a number of different factions, MPs from pro-mandate groups may manage to secure some last-minute support for their particular bill.

The most likely compromise is the bill put forward by FDP health expert Andrew Ullmann, which envisions an over-50s mandate and an obligatory medical consultation for everyone else.

If the group of traffic-light MPs behind this piece of legislation want to get it passed, they’ll probably have to rely on support from the opposition CDU/CSU parties. 

One way they could do this is to tweak their draft to include the conservative’s proposal for a national vaccine register, which could bring undecided opposition MPs on board.

The conservatives are also likely to come under pressure from the heads of the federal states, who have been pushing for a general vaccine mandate since November. 

While federal CDU/CSU MPs may be content to see the traffic light’s plans fall by the wayside, their counterparts in the 16 states wouldn’t be happy about that.

Since the conservatives are in government in a majority of federal states, this pressure could be enough to force a switch in allegiance from the CDU draft law to the draft by the FDP’s Ullmann.

The fact that MPs aren’t being asked to vote with their parties and are instead free to decide for themselves could also give CDU and CSU parliamentarians the push to work across party lines. 

The same can’t be said for the two groups of anti-mandate MPs. Since most parliamentarians are unwilling to work with the far-right AfD, it’s likely that these competing groups will remain firmly in their respective camps come April. 

READ ALSO: What would a general vaccine mandate mean for the German job market?

Useful vocabularly

draft law – (der) Gesetzentwurf

motion – (der) Antrag

(parliamentary) vote – (die) Abstimmung 

to argue – argumentieren 

to justify – rechtfertigen 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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