Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Germany’s Political Power to Navigate through the Covid-19 Crisis
IWAMA Yoko /  Professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

September 24, 2020
Chancellor Merkel frequently talks to the public at appropriate moments concerning measures to fight against the novel coronavirus and makes announcements on speedy economic policies. The way she is handling the situation has been highly praised by the German people. Under its federal system, a minister president from each German state has considerable authority to execute necessary measures, and Chancellor Merkel has convened frequent online conferences with the state minister presidents and discussed measures to be taken. As a result, the situation has been handled with scrupulous care largely upon the initiatives of each state government. To minimize the social impact, the scope of restrictions on activities has been kept as narrow as possible. Because of the public’s keen conscious of their rights, excessive restrictions can easily lead to litigations.
Thus appropriate measures are being probed with the judiciary playing a part.

Before this viral crisis, Merkel’s administration had put high priority on balancing the budget and not been proactive on fiscal spending. However, it recognized that special measures would be required in an emergency situation and has hammered out various actions since March. It can be said that the German economy is has a robust enough strength to do so, thanks to the budget surplus maintained thus far. As for tax reduction, it is a totally different story from Japan, where the consumption tax rate is 10 %. Value-added-tax was originally high in Germany, so it was decided that the standard tax rate would be lowered from 19 % to 16 % and the reduced tax rate from 7 % to 5 %.

Chancellor Merkel also worked hard on measures at the European Union level, despite her previous reluctance. Germany assumed the presidency of the EU in July and organized the EU summit meetings on countermeasures to COVID-19 at the end of July, where Germany insisted on providing a support package of 750 billion euro to the countries severely impacted by the virus. It did not back down until the package was approved and the summit continued for 5 days in the end. It could not have been achieved without Chancellor Merkel’s strong determination.

The agenda was about ‘a recovery fund’ whereby joint EU coronavirus bonds would be issued to support those countries which had been severely impacted by the virus such as Italy and Spain. To the proposal, “the Frugal Four,” the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria insisted that the ratio of the loan requiring repayment should be higher than the grant-in-aid which does not require repayment.

Now that the EU has jointly assumed the debt, there is a marked change in the attitude of Germany, which has adamantly insisted that debts should be incurred by individual countries. As a background of this change, distrust of EU had been mounting among its member countries since before the COVID-19 crisis. Because of this viral challenge, Germany apparently came to realize with a shared sense of crisis that the existence of the EU itself could be in danger, if it failed do anything about the situation. Brexit might also have played a role in the change of course.

Germany would face difficulties in various ways if the EU ceased to exist. It has been accepting immigrant labor from the wide EU regions and many German companies have factories in the neighboring countries. Germany did not seem receptive to the reform proposals of the EU by President Macron of France, giving the impression that Chancellor Merkel was not interested in the EU. It is as though Germany has just suddenly woken up. Since Chancellor Merkel has strong ethical and humanitarian views, reaching out to those who are sick and suffering apparently matches her belief.

Germany has not declared a state of emergency at the national level. The national and the state governments divide responsibilities, and restrictions on people’s activities are enforced by the states. In the case of Japan, the restrictions on actions have lacked a pinpoint focus, although there is the so-called “Special Measures Law”. If there is an outbreak of a similar infectious disease in the future, there should be clear demarcations of authorities and costs-bearing between the national and local governments. In principle, prefectural governors should manage the handling of disasters and diseases.

It was said that Japan had been managing the situation relatively well during the first peak of the epidemic in April. This, however, was achieved as a result of the efforts of almost all citizens throughout Japan who stuck it out by staying home. The restrictions are structured in an all or nothing manner, where they apply to 100% of the people or none at all, without a system of restrictions that apply to specific people or regions within a narrow range. Thus the government hesitates to declare a state of emergency and its measures are haphazard and insufficient, allowing the insidious spread of the infection. It could result in high social costs.

Although Prime Minister Abe’s initial response was fast, it subsequently tended to be late at times. The reason why the second wave of infection has been more or less contained is not because political leadership has been exerted, but because the public have voluntarily change their behaviour. I highly values certain aspects of Mr. Abe such as his national security policies, but in regard to the new coronavirus measures, he has not communicated effectively with the public. As long as the basic rights of the people, starting from children’s right to education, are sacrificed, more finely tuned, empathetic communication is called for. The leader of a nation should take the lead to express gratitude to medical care personnel and others who provide necessary services to society while exposing themselves to the risk of infection, and show the way to approach those people who have been infected, and so on. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has many second- or third- generation Diet members, and an overwhelming number of bureaucrats surrounding the prime minister are male graduates from Tokyo University. They may be somewhat removed from, and unable to grasp the ground realities of the society. I truly believe that greater diversity is necessary among our policymakers.

Our entire society is becoming inflexible and less capable of coping with changes. I would like to see Japan build a society of greater flexibility and diversity. How to deal with the Covid-19 crisis will be a determining factor for the future vitality of each of our countries.

Yoko Iwama is a professor of international politics at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. This is a summary of an article that appeared in “Bengoshi.com” on 17 August, 2020.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

岩間 陽子 / 政策研究大学院大学教授

2020年 9月 24日










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Germany’s Political Power to Navigate through the Covid-19 Crisis