Merkel Braces for Possible Court Setback Over Lockdown Law

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition is rapidly revising its pandemic strategy over concerns its controversial lockdown law may suffer a court setback, which would be the second legal defeat in quick succession just months before September elections.

Germany’s Constitutional Court is considering at least 289 challenges to the law, which was pushed through in April after authorities failed to find common ground on steps to fight a renewed surge in Covid-19 infections. Opponents argue that the legislation oversteps the national government’s authority and impinges on individual rights.

The law, which sparked protests when it was passed, automatically triggers tighter restrictions -- such as closing schools and non-essential stores -- in areas with high infection rates. At the time, that was almost the entire country. The most contentious element of the law, which is set to expire at the end June, was nighttime curfews from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m.

A preliminary decision by the court in Karlsruhe could come soon. Just last Thursday, the government was told to fix its law to combat climate change. In that case, the judges ruled that its plan was partially unconstitutional because delays in implementing emissions cuts violates the rights of young people and children.

Merkel said Wednesday that citizens’ basic rights have been curtailed during the pandemic in a way that would have been “beyond our powers of imagination” before the coronavirus struck.

“We know that such measures are only justified if they have a time limit” and if they are framed in a way that promotes “freedom with responsibility” toward our fellow citizens, Merkel said during a virtual World War II memorial ceremony.

Suspending part of the lockdown law would especially hurt Merkel’s conservatives, who have slipped behind the Greens in the latest polls, putting their hold on the chancellery at risk after 16 years under Merkel.

Merkel Braces for Possible Court Setback Over Lockdown Law

Led by Armin Laschet -- the 60-year-old premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state -- the Christian Democratic-led bloc is playing up its experience in government to counter the up-and-coming Greens. The environmental party picked Annalena Baerbock -- a 40-year-old political scientist who has never held a government post -- as its chancellor candidate.

But court defeats on critical issues such as the pandemic and climate change would damage the credentials of Merkel’s conservatives at a time when Germans are already leaning toward change.

“I don’t want to see that we are being corrected once again by the constitutional court here,” Alexander Dobrindt, the caucus leader for Merkel’s Bavarian CSU sister party, told reporters in Berlin this week.

To soften the blow of a potential court defeat, Merkel’s government is pushing ahead with first steps for a gradual easing of pandemic restrictions, which would dilute the impact of the lockdown law’s so-called emergency brake. On Tuesday, her cabinet passed a regulation which would allow people who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 to enter shops without needing a negative test.

Merkel Braces for Possible Court Setback Over Lockdown Law

In a fast-track legislative process, the easing regulation is to be voted on by the lower house of parliament on Thursday and the upper house on Friday. That could put the measure into effect already by Sunday, according to Health Minister Jens Spahn.

The change from tightening to easing pandemic restrictions has been facilitated by a rapid increase in inoculations and a receding contagion rate, even though it’s still above the level that triggers stricter curbs. On Wednesday, Germany had 132.8 infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days, compared with the law’s threshold of 100.

Meanwhile, the CSU is already pushing the government to go further, demanding a reopening of restaurants, hotels and cultural institutions for immunized people. Germany had a record 150,000 people receiving their second shot on Tuesday, Spahn said on Twitter.

“Basic rights can’t be restricted only because some don’t want to be vaccinated or have not been vaccinated yet,” Dobrindt said. “There must be normality again for all those who have been fully vaccinated.”

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