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German Greens vote to enter government coalition talks

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German's Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate for Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives to a meeting for exploratory talks for a possible new government coalition, in Berlin, Germany, October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

Germany's Green party on Sunday (17 October) followed its prospective partner, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), in clearing the way for official three-way negotiations with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) to form the next government, write Christian Kraemer, Holger Hansen and Ludwig Burger, Reuters.

Delegates at a Green party conference in Berlin voted in favour of starting negotiations in earnest following initial explorative meetings, which could see the SPD's Olaf Scholz (pictured) succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

The targeted "traffic light" alliance - named after the parties' red, yellow and green colours - would be led by the SPD which came first in last month's election.Read more

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A final coalition agreement, which Scholz hopes to strike before Christmas, would again be subject to an all-member Green party vote.

The FDP has yet to give an official go-ahead.

Scholz is currently finance minister and vice-chancellor in the outgoing government coalition between Merkel's conservatives and their junior partner, the SPD. He announced on Friday (15 October) that he and the leaders of the smaller Greens and FDP aimed to move into formal coalition talks. Read more.

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The Greens and FDP have kept open the option of turning to the conservatives, who have been in office for the last 16 years, should talks with the SPD stumble.

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In muddle of Merkel exit, COVID's fourth wave catches Germany out

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Car drivers queue outside a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) drive-in vaccination centre at Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany, November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

For once, proverbially efficient Germany has dropped the ball, write Ludwig Burger and Joseph Nasr.

Seemingly endless queues all over the country for coronavirus booster shots and even for first vaccines are evidence that it has been caught out by a fourth wave of COVID-19, having led the world in its initial response to the pandemic early last year.

Then, swift reporting and measures to limit contagion, helped by inspired political leadership, meant Germany suffered far fewer transmissions and deaths than Italy, Spain, France or Britain.

But now it is among the worst affected nations in western Europe, hitting a record of over 76,000 infections on Friday and preparing to fly severely ill people around the country to find intensive care beds. Read more.

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Many academics and clinicians blame vaccine-hesitancy. While waning vaccine protection is compounding the emergency, about 32% of Germany's population have had no COVID-19 vaccine at all - among the highest rates in western Europe.

In fact, the federal government ended funding for 430 vaccination centres at the end of September, when the flow of those seeking vaccination ebbed, passing the burden to family doctors and other medical practices.

While in Britain more than 24% have had a booster shot after their initial course, in Germany the number is below 10%.

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With general practitioners now overwhelmed by demand, Thomas Mertens, chairman of the vaccination advisory panel STIKO, said last week - before the detection of a new highly contagious variant in South Africa - that most elderly people would be unlikely to get a booster before December or January.

'CONFUSION AND FRUSTRATION'

Critics also point out that Germany has been in a political vacuum since a general election in September.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist who in early 2020 won praise for her swift decision to impose a lockdown and for a forceful televised appeal to reduce social contacts, has been leading a lame-duck administration while a new three-party coalition government is formed.

Frank Roselieb, director of the Crisis Research Institute in Kiel, said a "void" in communication from Merkel, who had already announced her retirement and travelled abroad as intensive care units filled up, had led to widespread public complacency.

"Communication about the pandemic was left to subordinates and health experts who have less reach and impact than the chancellor," he said.

To add to the disruption, Health Minister Jens Spahn this month told the 16 federal states to prioritise Moderna boosters that were nearing their expiry date over the more commonly used BioNTech/Pfizer shot.

Spahn hailed Moderna as the "Rolls-Royce" of vaccines to overcome Germans' stubborn preference for the home-made BioNTech. Read more.

But family doctors had to change their procedures, and Verena Bentele, president of the VdK social care association, said hesitant recipients were unlikely to be reassured by receiving a soon-to-expire vaccine:

"The management of the pandemic has been marked by unclear communication, which has led to confusion and frustration."

Getting a grip on the crisis will now be the first priority for the incoming government led by the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats. Read more.

Though not sworn in yet, the parties were criticised this month for failing to use their majority in parliament to stop the expiry of emergency laws that allow the federal government to order local lockdowns.

Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz of the SPD has promised to speed up vaccinations and has declined to rule out making them compulsory.

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Traffic lights say go!

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The Green, Liberal and Social-Democrat-led governing coalition - the so-called ‘traffic light coalition’ for Germany - have finally dotted the Is and crossed the Ts on their coalition agreement, coming in at just under 180 pages the parties' leaders have outlined a detailed programme for a government that "dares for more progress - an alliance for freedom, justice and sustainability"

The agreement will have to be signed off by each party, but this is expected to be more of a formality, major figures in the party will have been briefed during the coalition discussions and from the outset it was inevitable that all sides would need to make conciliatory gestures. 

Olaf Scholz (S&D) will be the next Chancellor (pictured), Annalena Baerbock (Green) will be the foreign minister, Christian Lindner (Renew) will be the minister for finance. The Greens have also been given charge of a new economy/climate ministry. 

Spitzenkandidat

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On more general structural questions in the EU, the coalition is supportive of the Conference on the Future of Europe and even of the possibility of treaty changes. They call for the EU to respect the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. They want to strengthen the European Parliament, preferably remaining within the treaties’ boundaries with partly transnational lists and a binding Spitzenkandidat system to determine the President of the European Commission. However, should that fail, they have agreed that the Greens can make their choice for the next German commissioner. 

Another helpful development is that they intend to make the Council’s working more transparent, ensuring that Commission proposals are publicly debated in the Council within a set deadline, they also call for the extension of qualified majority voting to new fields - this would be likely to face strong opposition from other states on questions like tax, which some states have preferred to keep behind closed doors. Importantly, the coalition will also improve the information provide to and the participation of the Bundestage in EU-level decision making. 

Another change the coalition is proposing is to extend the term of judges in the European Court of Justice to 12 years. 

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Traffic light coalition: SPD, Greens and FDP

Schwarze Null

Germany has sometimes been criticized for its “Black zero” policy, particularly during the financial crisis, where countries who had rescued banks ended up over-stepping fiscal rules. Most infamously pursued by former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the strict adherence to fiscal rules is thought to have slowed growth and Europe’s rebound. Scholz, while in coalition with the Christian Democrats, appeared to take a similar line and was often tight-lipped on these matters. However, the EU is now reviewing its fiscal rules and there are small glimpses of light in the agreement. Following the first was of the COVID-19 pandemic the rules have been used in a more flexible way with the triggering of the general escape clause - until the end of 2022. 

The agreement says the coalition wants to “strengthen and deepen the economic and monetary union.” On the debate on fiscal rules they are calling for debt sustainability but are also  supportive of sustainable and climate friendly investment. While some have harboured hopes that Next Generation EU (NGEU) could become a more permanent instrument, the agreement sticks to the view that it is an instrument that is limited in time and amount.

Rule of law

The coalition is calling on the European Commission to be more forceful guardians of the Treaties and to take more action to enforce existing rule of law instruments more consistently and promptly. They are calling for the use of all instruments (rule of law dialogue, rule of law check, conditionality mechanism, Infringement procedures, recommendations and findings under Article 7 procedure) to be enforced and developed more consistently. They make it clear that they will only accept the use of the Recovery and Resilience Facility if conditions such as an independent judiciary are secured - the so-called ‘rule of law conditionality’. 

More broadly the partners are calling for greater support for liberal democracy and the fight against: disinformation, fake news campaigns, propaganda from home and abroad.  

Banking Union

Germany has been one of the main foot draggers on European Banking Union, specifically, they have always resisted progress on a European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS), seen by many as a critical pillar of a banking union. While the coalition want a tiered system excluding smaller and medium-sized “locally anchored institutions” it is ready to offer a European reinsurance scheme for national deposit insurance schemes that is differentiated according to risk, “full communitarisation of the deposit guarantee systems in Europe is not the goal”.

Money laundering

The coalition recognises that they can only combat money laundering in an effective way through co-operation at an EU-level. The aim is to make the fight against money laundering across Europe more effective and to close any remaining gaps. They are in favour of an effective and independent EU money laundering authority as proposed by the European Commission and want it to be based in Frankfurt am Main. 

The coalition want the EU supervisory authority to go beyond the financial sector and to include the misuse of crypto assets. They also want to see the strengthening of financial intelligence units (FIU). 

Brexit, UK and Northern Ireland

The partners describe the United Kingdom as one of Germany's closest partners outside the EU. They would like to see co-operation in foreign and security policy, and want to strive for close bilateral co-operation within the framework of Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement. However, the coalition insists on full compliance, “in particular with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement”. They indicate that countermeasures allowed for in the agreement will be used if this is not done.

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Germany considers more COVID-19 curbs as US advises against travel there

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Members of the public order office walk at a Christmas market, where they control the '2G' rule which allows only those vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to visit, in Cologne, Germany, November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
A woman enters a vaccination booth at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) drive-in vaccination centre at Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany, November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Germany's health minister called on Tuesday (23 November) for further restrictions to contain a "dramatic" surge in coronavirus cases as the country's infection rate hit a record high and the United States advised against travel there, write Andreas Rinke, Riham Alkhousaa and Sarah Marsh, Reuters.

The seven-day incidence rate - the number of people per 100,000 to be infected over the last week - hit 399.8 on Tuesday, up from 386.5 on Monday, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

Health Minister Jens Spahn called for more public spaces to be restricted to those who were vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19 and also had a negative test, in a bid to contain Germany's fourth wave.

Spahn did not rule out lockdowns, although he said this would be decided region by region. Some regions such as the hard-hit Saxony and Bavaria are already taking measures such as cancelling Christmas markets.

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"The situation is not only serious, in some regions in Germany it is now dramatic," Spahn told German Radio. "We are having to move patients around as the intensive care units are full and that doesn't just affect COVID-19 patients."

With Germany grappling with concerns about supply of the Biontech/Pfizer (PFE.N) vaccine, the company brought forward the delivery of one million doses originally planned for December, Spahn told health ministry officials on Monday, according to two government sources.

That would enable it to deliver 3 million instead of 2 million doses next week as people rush to get booster shots and appointments at vaccine centres are booked out.

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Whether it would affect the total number of vaccines assigned to Germany for the rest of the year remained to be decided, the sources said.

The surge in cases in Germany, and in neighbouring Denmark, prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday to advise against travel to the two countries, raising its travel recommendation to 'Level Four: Very High'.

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