“Let’s not squander what we have achieved”
Dr Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor:
Mr President, Fellow Members of this House, ladies and gentlemen,
We are going through altogether exceptional, serious times. And all of us, the Government and the Parliament, our entire country, are facing a test the likes of which we have not seen since the Second World War, since the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany. This is about nothing less than people’s lives and health. And this is about cohesion and solidarity in our society and in Europe.
I stand before you as Federal Chancellor of a Federal Government that has adopted measures together with the Länder in recent weeks for which there is no historical precedent to guide us. We have forwarded bills to you, the Parliament, and have asked you to approve funds at a level that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, was simply beyond the power of our imagination. I am profoundly grateful that the German Bundestag and, incidentally, also the Bundesrat, discussed and adopted these legislative measures extremely quickly under difficult circumstances.
We have now been living through the pandemic for a number of weeks. Each and every one of us has had to adjust their lives to the new conditions, both privately and professionally. Each of us has stories to tell about what we particularly miss or find particularly difficult. And I understand that this life under the spectre of the coronavirus feels long, very long, for everyone.
No one likes to hear this, yet the truth is that we’re not going through the final phase of the pandemic, but are still only at the beginning. We will have to live with this virus for a very long time to come. The question as to how we can prevent the virus from overwhelming our healthcare system at a particular point in time, leading to the loss of countless lives, will remain the key question for politicians in Germany and Europe for a long while to come.
I’m aware of the great burden that these restrictions are placing on all of us individually, and also as a society. This pandemic is an affront to democracy as it is restricting precisely the things that are our existential rights and needs – those of adults and children alike. Such a situation is only acceptable and bearable as long as the reasons for the restrictions are transparent and understandable, if criticism and disagreement are not only allowed, but also called for and listened to – on both sides. The free press can help here.
Our federal order can help here. The mutual trust that we have witnessed in recent weeks here in Parliament and across the country can also help here. The fact that members of the public have made no bones about supporting each other or restricting their activities for the sake of others is admirable.
Let me assure you that I have found almost no other decision to be so difficult during my time in office as Federal Chancellor as the restrictions to personal freedoms.
I myself am saddened by the fact that children aren’t able to meet their friends just like that right now and that they miss this so much. I myself am saddened by the fact that people are, as a rule, only able to go for a walk with only one other person outside their own household and that they must always pay heed to the most vital minimum distance requirement.
I myself am particularly saddened to hear about what people living in care homes, retirement homes and centres for people with disabilities are having to go through. Places where loneliness is a problem under normal circumstances have become much more lonely still during the pandemic without any visitors at all. It is cruel that, with the exception of carers who are doing their very best, no one can be there when their strength wanes and a life draws to a close. Let us never forget these people or the temporary isolation in which they are forced to live. These 80- and 90 year-olds built our country. They established the prosperity that we enjoy.
They are part of Germany just like us, their children and grandchildren. And we’re fighting our battle against the virus also for them. I therefore firmly believe that these very tough restrictions are necessary nonetheless in order to withstand this dramatic crisis as a community and to protect what our Basic Law places at the centre of our actions: life and the dignity of each and every human being.
We have slowed down the spread of the virus in recent weeks by being hard on ourselves, and with discipline and patience. While this sounds like a small achievement, it’s something incredibly valuable. We have bought precious extra time and made effective use of it to further strengthen our healthcare system.
The intensive care units are at the heart of all our efforts in the medical field. This is where the fate of those most severely affected by the coronavirus is decided. All of us are familiar with the terrible reports from hospitals in a number of countries, which were simply overrun by the virus a few weeks ago. Ensuring that this does not happen here is the simple and yet most aspirational goal of the Federal Government. I would like to thank our Minister of Health Jens Spahn, and also the Ministers of Health of the Länder, who are working so tirelessly to achieve this objective – and with tangible success.
We have managed to achieve a considerable expansion in the number of hospital beds for patients requiring ventilators. With the COVID 19 Hospital Relief Act, we have ensured that hospitals are able to build up additional intensive care capacities. Today, we can state that our healthcare system has withstood this test so far. Each patient suffering from the coronavirus is receiving the best possible humane treatment, even in the most severe cases.
More than all state measures, we have the selfless work of doctors, nurses and paramedics to thank for this, the work of so many people who, with their dedication and drive, make up what we often simply refer to as “our healthcare system”.
We thank them with this applause, and I would also like to extend my thanks to the servicemen and women of the Bundeswehr who are providing assistance in many areas.
The public health service is playing what is perhaps a less high profile, but just as decisive role in the fight against the pandemic. We’re talking about almost 400 local health authorities here. If we are to manage to control and curb the rate of infection in the coming months, then we need these authorities to be strong, and I mean stronger than they were before the pandemic.
This is why the Federation and the Länder have just agreed to increase staffing levels for these authorities so that they can, for example, effectively assume this extremely important – indeed, I would say decisive – task of tracing the contacts of those infected by the virus. The Robert Koch Institute will, furthermore, set up 105 mobile teams of students, known as Containment Scouts, who can be deployed wherever there is a particular need.
The Federal Government has also been devoted to the issue of personal protective equipment from the outset. The supply of these goods, especially medical protective masks, has quickly become one of the key tasks, and not only for us, but for the entire world. After all, intensive care beds and ventilators are useless without healthy doctors and nurses.
The situation in world markets for such equipment is tense and trading practices during the early weeks of the pandemic were, shall we say, rough. This is why the Federal Government, despite not being the competent authority according to the Protection against Infection Act, decided to coordinate the procurement of personal protective equipment in a centralised manner before passing these goods on to the Länder. I would like to thank the companies who helped us with their experience in this context.
The pandemic has taught us that procuring protective equipment exclusively from faraway countries isn’t a good idea. Masks that cost just a few cents can become a strategic factor in the pandemic. The Federal Republic of Germany and the EU are therefore working to reduce our dependence on third countries in this area. We’re working intensively to expand our productive capacities for protective equipment in Germany and Europe with this in mind.
If we ask ourselves what has stood us in good stead in this first phase of the virus’ spread, then this is – alongside the relatively high number of intensive care beds – our high testing capacities and dense network of laboratories. Experts tell us to test, test, test. This helps us to get a better picture of the epidemic in Germany, and to achieve greater clarity regarding the number of unreported infections. Moreover, carers can be more frequently tested in order to reduce the risk of infection in hospitals and care homes. This is why we have continually expanded and will continue to expand our capacities for comprehensive testing.
However, we can, at the end of the day, only end the coronavirus pandemic with a vaccine, at least based on everything we know about the virus today. Researchers in multiple countries around the world are working to find a vaccine. The Federal Government is providing financial support so that Germany as a research location can play its role in these efforts. But we are just as committed, not least financially, to international initiatives such as the vaccine initiative CEPI.
The Federal Government has also made available at short notice considerable financial resources for the development of medicines and for a new national research network on Covid 19. This is helping researchers and doctors at all German university hospitals to join hands in working on this task. We will require still many more studies, and also antibody surveys in the future. We are well equipped for this.
Science is never national, however, but is in the service of humanity. It thus goes without saying that, when medicines or a vaccine are discovered, tested, released and ready to be deployed, they must be available throughout the world and also be affordable throughout the world.
A virus that is spreading in almost all countries can only be pushed back and curbed when all countries work together. The Federal Government attaches overarching importance to international cooperation to tackle the virus. We are coordinating our efforts in the EU, and also within the framework of the G7 and the G20.
With the decision to suspend all interest and debt payments for the world’s poorest 77 countries this year, we have been able to relieve some of the pressure on these poverty-stricken groups of countries. We cannot content ourselves with providing this support, of course. Cooperating with the countries of Africa has always been a priority of the Federal Government, and we must strengthen this still further in the coronavirus crisis.
The work of the World Health Organization (WHO) is vital not only in Africa, but particularly there. On behalf of the Federal Government, allow me to emphasise that The WHO is an indispensable partner, and we are supporting it in its mandate.
Ladies and gentlemen, when we look at the most recent figures published by the Robert Koch Institute here in Germany, then the indicators show that they’re developing in the right direction, for example a slower rate of infection and more recoveries than new infections each day at the present time. This is an interim success. But precisely because these numbers give us cause for hope, I feel I have a duty to say that this interim success is fragile. We are on thin ice, we could also say on the very thinnest of ice.
The situation is deceptive, and we are a long way from being in the clear. After all, in the fight against the virus, we must always bear in mind that today’s numbers reflect the rate of infection about ten to 12 days ago. Today’s number of new infections therefore doesn’t tell us what things will look like in one or two weeks when we have permitted considerably more new contacts in the meantime.
Fellow Members of this House, I would like to take this opportunity to go into greater detail about what is currently worrying me. Political decisions are naturally always part of a constant process of weighing things up to the best of one’s knowledge and judgment. That also applies to the decisions in the fight against the corona pandemic which are naturally of the utmost importance for the well being of people in our country.
In this exceptionally important process, which I know no one in the Federation or the Länder takes lightly, I firmly believe that when it comes to the fight against the coronavirus, we need to demonstrate the greatest possible perseverance and discipline particularly at the start of this pandemic, as we will then be in a position to restart economic, social and public life faster, and without having to backtrack, than if we – particularly at the start – allow encouraging infection rates to lull us into a false sense of security too soon.
So if we are disciplined at the start, we will succeed much faster in being able to give equal weight to health and the economy and to health and social life. The virus will still be with us, but with focus and stamina – particularly at the start – we will be able to prevent a situation where we go from one shutdown to the next or have to isolate groups of people from everyone else for months and are faced with terrible conditions in our hospitals, as was unfortunately the case in some other countries. The greater perseverance and consistency we demonstrate at the start of the pandemic as regards living with the restrictions, thus driving down the infection rate, the more we are helping not only people’s health, but also economic activities and social life, as we would then be in a position to trace every chain of infection in full and thus keep the virus under control. This firm belief guides my actions.
So allow me to be very frank and say that I wholeheartedly support the decisions made last Wednesday by the Federation and the Länder. However, I am worried about how these decisions have been implemented since then.
In parts, this implementation seems very fast, not to say rash. When I say that, then naturally this doesn’t change in the slightest my absolute belief in and respect for the sovereignty the Länder have on many issues in our federal system, as laid down under constitutional law. And naturally, that also goes for the Protection against Infection Act. Our federal system is strong. I wanted to reiterate that clearly so that no misunderstandings arise here.
At the same time, I see it as my duty to sound a warning not simply to trust in the principle of hope if I myself am not convinced. In my talks with the Minister-Presidents and now here in this House, I want to warn against squandering what we have achieved and risking a setback!
It would be a terrible shame if premature hope ended in suffering. Let’s all remain prudent and cautious on the path to the next phase of the pandemic. We are in this for the long haul, and we cannot allow ourselves to run out of stream too soon.
Right now, we cannot return to the daily life we knew before corona. That much is certain. Daily life will be different for the time being even if the digital tracing models currently being discussed can be put in place. The strict distancing regulations, the hygiene instructions and the contact restrictions will continue to be a part of daily life. That applies to the opening of schools and kindergartens, for example. The Länder are currently working on very practical steps as regards gradually opening the schools. A great deal of creativity and energy will be needed. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who are working on this at the moment. I know that many, many people are involved.
At the start of my speech, I spoke about the biggest test since the early days of the Federal Republic of Germany. Unfortunately, that also applies to the economy. We cannot yet say with any degree of certainty how high the losses will be at the end of the year, how long they will last or when recovery will start; naturally, all this depends on our success in dealing with the virus.
The pandemic hit us at a time when our budgets were in good shape and our reserves high. Years of sound policies are now helping us. We now need to support our economy and to provide a safety net for workers. Millions of applications for various aid programmes have been submitted; millions of people and companies have already received money. We were able to adopt all these legal measures quickly and by an overwhelming majority. Our parliamentary democracy is strong. It is efficient and at a time of crisis it is extremely fast.
Last night, we agreed further measures in the coalition committee, about which you have been informed. However, all of our measures at the national level can only succeed in the end if we succeed together in Europe. In this House, you have often heard me say that Germany can only fare well in the long term if Europe fares well. I mean it very, very seriously when I repeat this sentence today.
How is this expressed in concrete terms? For example, we have treated over 200 patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands in German ICUs. We have supplied medical equipment to countries such as Italy and Spain and flown thousands of other stranded Europeans back home from all over the world along with our own citizens. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all the staff of the Federal Foreign Office for this. It is hard to believe how many Germans are outside the country, but we were also able to help many other Europeans. Thank you.
We took joint action to counter the massive blow to Europe’s economy. We are doing this with a huge 500 billion-euro package of aid measures for firms and employees that our Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and the other finance ministers in the Eurogroup agreed two weeks ago. Now we need to ensure that these 500 billion euros are really made available, and the German Bundestag will also have to decide on this matter. I would be pleased if we could say that the money will really be available by 1 June, as we are talking here about aid for small and medium-sized enterprises. We are talking here about precautionary credit lines. And we are also talking here about reduced hours compensation benefits, for which some Member States may not have the financial resources, but which can be of great help to workers there.
Now some of our European partners – but this is also being discussed by politicians here in Germany – are calling for joint loans with joint liability to be taken out in view of this severe crisis. This matter is certain to be discussed again in the European Council’s video conference this afternoon. Let us assume that the time and the political will to take on joint debt truly exist. Then all the national parliaments in the European Union, including the German Bundestag, would have to decide to amend the EU treaties in such a way that a part of budget law would be transferred to the European level and democratically monitored there. This would be a time-consuming and difficult process. It is not one that could help immediately in the current situation. What is now important is to provide rapid support and to quickly have instruments that can alleviate the impact of the crisis.
Today’s European Council will also discuss how we want to proceed together in Europe once the tightest restrictions have been relaxed. We want to act quickly in Europe because naturally we need instruments in order to be able to overcome the impact of the crisis in all Member States.
In this context, I think it is important that the European Commission is reviewing now and in the coming weeks how the various sectors of the European economy have been affected by the crisis and what action needs to be taken in response. So this also affects the immediate aid for Europe’s economy. A European economic stimulus programme could support the necessary recovery in the next two years. That is why we will also work towards this.
In our talks today, we will not yet decide on the details or the amounts involved. But one thing is already clear – in a spirit of solidarity, we should be willing to make very different, that is, significantly higher, contributions to the EU budget for a limited period of time because we want all European Union Member States to be able to recover economically.
However, this type of economic stimulus programme should be joined up with the European budget from the outset, as the joint European budget has been the proven instrument for financing joint tasks in the European Union in a spirit of solidarity for decades.
Furthermore, I will urge the European Council to address very fundamental questions in the near future. Where do we need to work even more closely together at the European level? Where does the European Union need additional competencies? Which strategic skills do we need to have or maintain in Europe in the future? Fiscal policy, digital policy and the single market are not the only areas where we could deepen this Union; European solidarity is also needed in migration policy, the rule of law, European Security and Defence Policy and climate protection. Mr President, fellow Members of this House, commitment to the united Europe is part of our national ethos in Germany. This is not just something that sounds nice. It has very practical implications. We are bound together by a common fate.
In view of the unforeseen challenge of the pandemic, Europe must prove this now.
The pandemic affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone equally. If we are not careful, it will serve as a pretext for all those who seek to divide society. Europe is not Europe if it does not see itself as such.
Europe is not Europe if it does not show solidarity when times are hard through no fault of anyone’s.
In this crisis, we are also tasked with showing who we want to be as Europe.
And so, at the end of my speech, I have come full circle back to the idea of cohesion. What goes for Europe is also the most important thing for us in Germany. As paradoxical as it sounds, in weeks where the conduct regulations have forced us far apart and distance rather than closeness is needed, we stuck together. And by doing so, we managed to at least slow the virus down together on its path through Germany and Europe. No government can simply decree this. In the final analysis, the government can merely hope it will come to pass. This is only possible if the public, motivated by compassion and reason, do something for other people, for their country. Let’s call it for the greater good.
This makes me profoundly grateful, and I hope that the same spirit will prevail among us in the coming time. Things will remain very hard for quite a while. But together – and after the first weeks of the pandemic, I firmly believe this – we will succeed in mastering this enormous challenge – together as a society and together in Europe.
Thank you very much.