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How coronavirus has revealed the unexpected strengths of Germany’s model of government

Germany’s population of 83 million has suffered 9,000 deaths, while in Britain, with its population of 67 million, there have been at least 43,000.

By Jeremy Cliffe

There are plenty of English-language commentators who see every German twitch as proof that the country’s long period of prosperity and stability is finally coming to an end. The sort of commentators who have predicted all 17 of Angela Merkel’s last zero political downfalls.

I am not of them, having always taken the view that the country is fairly resilient. I first moved to Berlin shortly after Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in more than a million refugees and have since closely followed the quiet success story of German society mobilising at all levels to help the newcomers learn the language and acquire homes, qualifications and jobs. The scenes in recent weeks of teenagers from the 2015 influx scooping top grades in their school leaving exams were testament to those strengths. With its emphasis on long-termism, expertise, consensus and decentralised power, the German system is good at challenges requiring patience and widespread buy-in.

But Covid-19 was and is a crisis demanding decisive action from the top, executed fast and with a high degree of digital monitoring of the population. And Germany’s system is one that tends to plod forward. The popular verb “merkeln” or “to merkel” captures the chancellor’s tendency to wait until the last possible moment to make a decision. The country’s engineering prowess, built on patient and decentralised management, is not matched in digital industries, which require more radical innovation than is present in Germany’s starchy research ecosystem. E-commerce and the app economy are stymied by slow internet speeds and stringent privacy rules, an understandable reaction to decades of state surveillance by the Gestapo and the Stasi.

If, at the start of the year, you had asked me to design a crisis that would best show off the relative strengths of the British system – centralised, adversarial, responsive, digitally advanced and blessed with elite universities – over the stolid but plodding German one, I would have probably suggested something like the Covid-19 outbreak.

Yet subsequent events would have proved me wrong. Germany moved faster to roll out testing. Its decentralised health system was more responsive than Britain’s top-down one and its federal state nonetheless got more and faster support to businesses and workers during its (relatively mild) lockdown. Its leaders issued clearer messages about social distancing.

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As a result, Germany’s population of 83 million has suffered 9,000 deaths, while in Britain, with its population of 67 million, there have been at least 43,000. The death rate in care homes is fully 13 times higher in Britain. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, privacy-obsessed, digitally underdeveloped Germany got a functional contact-tracing app on 16 June (now at 15 million downloads and counting), while supposedly digitally savvy Britain is still waiting for one.

Three key factors played out differently from what I expected. The first is the role of decentralisation. Far from slowing down policies to confront the virus, Germany’s federal structure helped them to flow. Its pluralistic health system, where individuals co-fund insurance with their employers and the state provides a safety net for the needy, has more slack (that is, more free beds) than Britain’s tightly managed NHS. Independent labs did not have to wait for guidance from above, so got on with producing tests early. German state governments had the freedom and the proximity to citizens to impose and manage lockdowns and contact-tracing procedures sensitively.

There were conflicts, of course, with some federal states going their own way. But here the second German strength played a role: the emphasis on consensus. Governments here are almost invariably coalitions, which creates a culture of extensive consultation and compromise. Sometimes that slows down decision-making. But in a crisis, as recent months have shown, it improves it: Merkel has coordinated the decisions taken by the states, opposition parties have participated closely in decisions, and the result has been a pandemic response marked by a relatively high degree of trust and discipline. “This is serious. Take it seriously,” Merkel said in an address to the country on 19 March that was notable for its implicit faith in individuals and localities to do their bit.

The third factor is Germany’s attitude to science and technology, where its emphasis on applied research (rather than the sort of world-changing discoveries that mark out Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial) and its nuanced approach to digital technology have been beneficial. Labs focused on applied research were well placed to produce tests. A culture where academic titles are treated with (sometimes cringe-worthy) deference takes expertise seriously. And a respect for privacy and individual data rights has resulted in a simple, popular contact-tracing app that takes citizens’ concerns into account.

The bugs in the German system turn out to be features. And that tells us something not just about Germany but about the pandemic more widely – and similar challenges facing the world in the coming decades. We Anglo-Saxons are used to a macho notion of the “killer apps” that make a society successful: strong leaders that impose their will, Darwinian clashes of ideas, elite levels of innovation and research advancing the frontiers of knowledge.

But it may be that pandemics, the inevitable vulnerabilities of the hyper-digital age and the stresses of runaway climate change forge a new ideal of the successful society. One that is resilient and advances by consensus, where power is exercised close to people, where social trust is a supreme virtue and where science and technology are respected but are also expected to deliver in everyday life. One that, in other words, looks a bit more like Germany. 

[See also: Why are Covid-19 cases rising again?]

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This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis