Berlin Uses Water Cannons as Pandemic Protests Intensify

Berlin police used water cannons in an effort to break up a protest against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coronavirus policies, another sign of the growing pushback in Germany over renewed restrictions to stem the pandemic.

Thousands of demonstrators refused to abide by distancing and hygiene rules, while some threw bottles and other objects. The scene near the Brandenburg Gate echoed recent unrest in cities such as Frankfurt and Leipzig as tension rises across Europe’s largest economy.

Pressure has been growing on German authorities, which are facing a crunch meeting next week to lay out a long-term plan to fight the pandemic. Merkel fell short on efforts to tighten the country’s partial lockdown in a meeting on Monday, with her approach drawing a public rebuke from a close ally.

The demonstration was organized to oppose a law that was approved by the Bundestag expanding the government’s powers to place restrictions on the public. Critics say the measures go too far. The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, likened the legislation to policies under authoritarian regimes.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz dismissed the criticism as a minority of the German population, saying the government’s strategy still has widespread support.

“I’m absolutely convinced that we can manage the situation like we did in the spring,” he said in a Bloomberg TV interview, adding that the new law will make it easier for courts to back pandemic measures.

Berlin Uses Water Cannons as Pandemic Protests Intensify

Two weeks into a partial shutdown -- which closed bars and restaurants but kept schools and most shops open -- Germany’s contagion rates are still nearly triple the level authorities have determined to be manageable, raising the prospect of tougher curbs overshadowing Christmas and New Year’s festivities.

More than 2,000 police officers and several water cannons were at the scene in central Berlin. Protesters were sheltering under tarps and umbrellas as police sought to disperse the crowd. Some waved AfD flags, while others held up a giant poster with the face of civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Police picked out individuals for arrests, with more than 100 detained. Authorities pushed the crowd slowly in the opposite direction from the Reichstag building, where the lower house of parliament sits.

Merkel Rebuke

While activists on the streets carried signs of Merkel in prison uniform, Armin Laschet -- the premier of Germany’s most populous state and a leading candidate to succeed her as chancellor -- addressed a conference, calling Merkel’s pandemic strategy into question.

He said the costs of shutting down chunks of the economy risk running out of control. He also took aim at Merkel’s proposals earlier this week to impose strict restrictions on children, saying participants lined up against the chancellor.

“The state will not be able to afford months of paying billions to compensate lost revenue,” Laschet said. Payments of more than 10 billion euros ($11.9 billion) for reimbursing restaurants are “a major effort that won’t be repeatable in this form in December, January and February.”

Laschet’s comments represent a rare attack by one of the top candidates to run Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. The post would put him in a strong position to lead Germany’s conservative bloc into next year’s elections. His main rival is long-time Merkel critic Friedrich Merz.

Merkel drew widespread criticism from state leaders for proposing at a Monday meeting that children limit their playmates to one other kid and masks should be mandatory throughout schools.

“We will have to learn to live with the virus, knowing that infection rates are there, but still maintain social and economic life,” Laschet said.

Bavarian state leader Markus Soeder -- also a top contender to run as the bloc’s chancellor candidate -- demanded a different approach, calling for tax incentives instead of handouts to get businesses investing again.

“We shouldn’t just permanently juice the economy, but rather stimulate it,” he told the same conference where Laschet spoke.

Health Minister Jens Spahn defended the government’s strategy, including the legislation, urging citizens and lawmakers to work together to tackle the pandemic.

“The virus is dynamic, and we must be too,” Spahn said in a speech in the lower house of parliament. “We need the authority and instruments to act and make decisions to protect our citizens.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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