Covid rules in the German parliament
Discussing a de facto vaccine mandate in the heart of German democracy - and the lack of a public debate over this drastic measure.
My history teacher at school, a former commander in the British air force, liked to reprimand my class with the words: “Get out of your perambulator!” This exhortation would come if we had analysed a source based only on the words we saw on the page in front of us.
He was implying that toddlers only see the world in front of them. As he wouldn't tire of saying, the most revealing thing about a source is often what it fails to tell us.
I couldn’t help thinking of that lesson as I noticed the lack of even a hint of disquiet in the German press this week after the Bundestag voted to make entrance to its debating chamber conditional on having a vaccine.
The decision, supported by all the parties except for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), creates a de facto vaccine mandate for MdBs. Those who don’t comply will be allowed to watch from the seating area above the hall but they won’t be able to take part in debates.
Previously, MdBs who were not vaccinated could enter the plenary hall by showing a negative test result.
The exclusion also applies to parliamentary committees. Joachim Wundrak, a retired general who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee for the AfD was asked to leave the room this week after he raised his hand to say that he was not vaccinated.
The ruling will almost exclusively affect the far-right party, many of whose MdBs have flat out rejected all forms of public health intervention since the pandemic started.
Personally, I can’t understand why the 66-year-old Mr Wundrak hasn’t taken up the chance to get jabbed. It seems to be a fairly stubborn act of self-sabotage. But he was voted into the Bundestag by the German electorate. His role to be their voice in parliament is one of the most sacred functions in a representative democracy.
Banning him from participation should only happen if there is overwhelming evidence that his presence in the debating chamber represents an unavoidable danger to other people’s health.
That isn’t just my opinion, that is what the Constitutional Court implied in its ruling on pandemic restrictions, which it published last month. The court gave its blessing to last winter’s lockdown based on the belief that “the legislature did not regard milder means to be equally effective.” Thus restrictions on constitutional rights are only acceptable if a milder solution is not available.
So, has the “3G” testing regime in the Bundestag been proven to be ineffective? Has there been a mass outbreak of Covid there that I’ve missed? Have other MdBs been falling like flies every time an unvaccinated colleague gives a rather too phlegmy speech from the pulpit?
Where is the science that shows that antigen tests are effective for the vaccinated but don’t work for the unvaccinated? (Under the new rules the vaccinated will only be allowed to enter the chamber if they show a negative test result.)
And what about alternatives that would ensure public safety while giving MdBs the ability to join in debates? Why is there no option to participate by video link, something that has long been the case in the British parliament?
Additionally, the constitutional court’s acceptance of lockdown restrictions was based on the fact that they were temporary. The judges were convinced that lost time at school, for example, could be made up for later. But participation in parliamentary debates is surely different - once a law has been passed it is on the statute books. It can’t be re-debated at a later point.
In short: the new rules should be an insult to any German who considers him or herself to be a true democrat.
But the silence over the decision has been deafening.
The report by public broadcaster Tagesschau, which has a duty to offer balanced reporting, couldn’t have been more soporific. “Bundestag führt 2G-Plus für Abgeordnete ein” the news site stated, as if this was just the latest in a long line of insignificant bureaucratic measures.
The report quoted Lorenz Müller, the Director of the Bundestag, as saying that the rule was necessary due to a “rising risk of infection”. No space was given to someone who has criticised the rule, despite the fact that independent legal experts have described it as “disproportionate.”
Reading through the independent press, I could only find criticism in the Bild Zeitung. There at least, opposition was loud and clear. Bild editor Claus Strunz described it as “a scandal,” saying the real intention was to name and shame those who hadn’t been jabbed.
For the Berlin based Tagesspiegel newspaper the only problem with the rule is that the “AfD will use it to present themselves as victims.” But the article went on to note approvingly that “it will be a problem for the AfD” due to the fact that so many of their MdBs will now be spectators to debates.
For Germans, the fact that their press is so weak-kneed is lamentable. But what does it teach us - the disinterested outside observers of modern Germany?
I’d propose the following hypothesis: seeing Germany as a liberal democracy in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is a mistake. Whereas there is a consensus in democracies such as the UK and the US that the boundaries of free thought must tolerate objectionable viewpoints, the German constitutional set up is different.
Germany defines itself as a wehrhafte Demokratie (a defensive democracy). This definition was created after the Second World War and was intended to arm the state against a putsch by Nazis or communists. It gives the state powers to ban political parties it sees as a potential threat and even obliges ordinary citizens to take a stand to protect the constitution.
Because there is a general consensus that the AfD pose a threat to democracy, different rules apply to them. Even if there is not enough evidence against them to have them banned, other ways and means can be found.
Thus, the other parties in the Bundestag repeatedly vote together to ensure that the AfD’s allotted chairmanships of parliamentary committees are never filled, meaning deputy chairs from the other parties take their place.
By the same token, the press see the banning of unvaccinated MdBs (i.e. AfD MdBs) from the debating chamber as a case of the ends justifying the means.
In my humble opinion, defending democracy through dirty tricks can never be a good long-term strategy. What are your thoughts? Add a comment below the line.