Coronavirus

“We need a corona strategy that will last into January”

Jan-Philipp Burmann / City-Press GmbH via Getty Images

The head of the Union faction, Ralph Brinkhaus, contradicts the demonstrators against the Corona rules, explains what Christmas could look like – and warns that Europe is falling behind.

Wednesday afternoon of this week in Ralph Brinkhaus’ office. The Bundestag has just debated the Infection Protection Act, in between the Union parliamentary group leader has to vote by name. The patio door in the conference room is open, and the calls of the demonstrators against the corona rules are booming from outside.

Mr. Brinkhaus, we can hardly understand you in view of the noise from outside. What does that actually say about the state of our democracy?

That it works. Citizens should be able to demonstrate even in times of the pandemic – if they comply with the applicable hygiene rules. Democracy lives from debate.

However, the rules are not adhered to – as with previous demonstrations. Does the state have to put up with that?

No, he doesn’t have to. The police are also taking action against this and dissolving the events. The state prevails. And thus protects the majority of citizens.

Can you understand the arguments of the protesters?

I cannot share the overwhelming majority, nor do I understand it. What really touches me are the allegations that we deliberately restrict civil rights. Yes, we are acting in the pandemic, but to avert health and economic damage to people. You can find that right or wrong, but you mustn’t denounce it. And besides, a look at neighboring countries helps. Not only is the pandemic worse than in Germany almost everywhere in Europe – no, the lockdown measures in Germany are also less severe than in many other countries.

Are the protesters ungrateful?

Gratitude is not a political category. Everyone can say what they think. That’s democracy. So it is good. I will defend democratic disputes at any time. But it also depends on how you come up with something. Anyone who thinks I just have to be loud enough and then I’ll have my way is wrong.

But acceptance is decreasing. According to an Allensbach survey, the proportion of critics of the Corona policy has increased from 15 to 28 percent in recent months.

You have to make a distinction. There are people with existential fears and people who are overwhelmed by the situation. On the other hand, there are also people who believe that we are doing too little to prevent the virus from spreading. Against this background, approval is still incredibly high overall. When has there been such great agreement on any subject? It is completely normal that there are also signs of fatigue after more than half a year of pandemic.

Perhaps part of the misunderstanding also comes from the fact that a uniform line from federal and state governments is not always recognizable. The most recent meeting between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister revealed that once more.

The relationship between the Federal Government and the Prime Minister is indeed complicated. Countries that are affected by the pandemic in different ways and have different approaches to solutions are wrestling with each other. That doesn’t always mean that there are clear lines in the end. But they are important for fighting a pandemic.

Who’s to blame?

I’m not giving the buck to anyone. But unfortunately the federal line that one must act early and decisively is not shared by everyone.

Is federalism reaching its limits?

This is a constant challenge in 16 countries: Sometimes things go well, sometimes it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting at the moment. But that doesn’t mean we are questioning our system.

You can also name the deficits of a system without immediately questioning it.

That’s true. Our federal system is not carved in stone. It has to evolve. Our federalism dates back to 1949 – and we haven’t changed anything fundamentally about it since then. This is not only a problem with a view to disasters, as we are now experiencing with Corona. We still have to learn the lessons of the pandemic.

What do you suggest?

In the event of a disaster, we either need more federal competencies or mechanisms that ensure that the federal states act more uniformly.

However, this will not be the case until the next pandemic at the earliest. When do we have the worst of Corona behind us?

It will be another tough few months.

That doesn’t sound very optimistic.

I assume that it will be better in the spring. Then the vaccinations should have started, we have more rapid tests – and we can go outside more often in the fresh air. But can I therefore give you a date when we will have our old life back? No, that would be dubious.

Next week the federal and state governments want to agree a longer-term strategy. What does “long-term” actually mean in these times?

I expect a strategy to be adopted that will at least take us through January so that people know what Christmas and New Year’s Eve is.

What do you wish for Christmas?

That the number of infections will then have dropped so far that visits to family and friends are permitted within a responsible framework. That is why we must consistently adhere to the restrictions until then. However, we should not make a mistake as a politician: create expectations that we cannot meet.

That means specifically?

We can make the promise that we will do all we can to keep Corona under control and that we will try to limit economic and social damage as much as possible. All other promises would be dubious in this crisis.

In the middle of this crisis, the CDU is looking for a new boss. So far there is no favorite. As group leader you are one of the most powerful politicians in your party. Why don’t you actually candy?

The question does not arise now.

That means: it might arise in a few weeks?

Even if you may find it hard to believe, we do not really deal with the issue of party leadership internally. Corona challenges us enormously. And the world continues to turn. So I just can’t complain about boredom.

We also ask because you recently gave a fiery speech in the Bundestag on the corona situation, in which you tackled FDP leader Christian Lindner hard. Then a rumor arose in your party: Oh, someone is warming up.

I said there: “Freedom is always the freedom of the weak and of others.” I mean that too, because in the Corona crisis, people often only think of those who are expected to be restricted, but not of those who are us want to protect. With this I wanted to differentiate the Union from our political competitors in terms of content and program. And yes, the feedback on it has been very good.

How did Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer actually fail as CDU leader?

Today you hardly get any time – as one would say in football – to develop a game idea and implement it. In the past, every new party leader was given 100 days of closed time, which is usually no longer there today. I am glad that the group gave me time to develop myself in September 2018 when they elected me as their boss.

The new party leader will hardly have time to develop: the general election will take place in September.

The new party leader must show what he can do very quickly. But whoever it becomes: He must also be allowed to make mistakes.

Jens Spahn said in February that the CDU was in the greatest crisis in its history. Is that still true?

It is true that we are in a time of transition. But that’s quite normal: it was like that after Konrad Adenauer and after Helmut Kohl too. Back then, Angela Merkel was the first to ensure continuity.

So the continuity is over after her?

When such an epochal personality, who has led the government extremely successfully for 16 years and is an international icon, steps down, it means a turning point. But that’s normal. And as I said, after Adenauer and Kohl, as the CDU, we managed that too.

Will Merkel’s sober political style remain in the CDU?

You win elections in the middle. Anyone who leans towards the political fringes will not find it easy to get the citizens on board. We have to hold the party and the country together – and that is only possible with a middle course.

Sounds like a plea for Armin Laschet.

No, all candidates have integrative skills. But whatever the outcome of the race, I expect those who lose to stand behind the winner.

Before Corona you talked a lot about the need for reforms, but not recently. Isn’t anyone interested in what we will live on in 2030?

More than ever before!

Seriously?

A year or two ago, few were interested in economic policy. Many have said: “I have a job, I get more money and my boss is looking for skilled workers. What’s the problem?” Now people are asking what will become of their job. So there is now momentum for reform.

And where do you use it?

For example with the economic stimulus package that we passed. We are investing half of the approximately 130 billion euros in our future – from hydrogen to quantum computers to the environment. We are also investing in digital administration.

A little here, a little there – is that enough given the fact that China has just created the largest free trade agreement in the world with 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region?

No of course not. We therefore need to talk more about geoeconomics.

What do you mean by that?

It is about how foreign policy in particular is designed to achieve economic goals – and vice versa. China is doing this with great consistency. The country is getting out of the crisis faster than we are, and – as with the free trade agreement – is hammering in big sticks. As Europe we really have to see where we are in this world.

We are also losing touch because we have a very own understanding of data protection. This means that the Corona app is a flop.

Contradiction!

Well, it’s not a real success because apparently data protection is so important that it doesn’t have many functions.

We should be in a much better position digitally. But we also don’t want any Chinese conditions, no transparent citizens. We always have to find a balance. We haven’t found it yet in data protection.

That sounds like: let’s talk a lot and decide little.

No. We have to consider whether our attitude towards data protection is still up to date. Data protection is important, but it must not act as a brake on new opportunities in health protection or as an obstacle to new technologies and ideas. Unfortunately, not many parliamentary groups in the German Bundestag see it that way.

But it’s not just about data protection. Why is the digitization of schools not making progress?

We were not prepared for the need to teach students online in March. Since then, many teachers have been exemplary. We could do a lot more with home schooling. We have to pick up the pace.

What have you actually learned about Germany since the outbreak of the corona pandemic?

That we are a great country with an incredible number of committed citizens who adhere to rules in a disciplined manner, deal creatively with economic challenges, fight with a high level of personal commitment – whether in the health care system, in the education system or in administration – and still keep their families together. We can really be very proud of a lot.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Brinkhaus.

Note: This article was first published on T-Online.

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