BERLIN – Olaf Schultz made a political career by presenting himself as a meaningless rapporteur, telling voters that “anyone who orders me to drive will get it.” Now, his first big initiative as chancellor of Germany – to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory – is in trouble as he has outsourced the decision to impose it.
Schulz made an early push for mandatory vaccination in late November, a week before the Social Democrats was elected chancellor, saying he wanted to launch the plan by early February in order to boost vaccine rollout in Germany, which lags behind many other EU countries.
He was one of several politicians who rejected compulsory vaccination but changed their minds with the advent of the highly contagious variant Omicron, prompting fears that 28 percent of the German population not fully vaccinated could end up inflating the epidemic death toll now at 115,000.
Later, he postponed the launch to March. Now, his party admits that debate over the plan could take several months. Some political analysts say the mandate may never happen.
“Olaf Schulz made a huge mistake,” said political analyst and commentator Albrecht von Loeck.
He said Schultz and other politicians who support the measure are guilty of “putting themselves under undue stress” by committing to a policy that may not be enforceable, proportionate and thus constitutional — not to mention conducive to social peace.
Even if German voters ask for leadership assistance, Schulz, as the leader of a three-party coalition, faces limitations on his ability to perform. With vaccines, he has to take into account the views of his smallest coalition ally, the Liberal Democrats, a liberal party that has opposed pandemic measures that cut personal liberties.
In deciding not to propose legislation and instead agreeing to allow lawmakers to vote freely on the issue, the 63-year-old chancellor may succeed in avoiding conflict in the coalition. But he also effectively abandoned all claims of forcing the issue to be settled, leaving MPs to come up with their own proposals and then compromise – a process that could take weeks or even months.
Dirk Wiese, the deputy leader of Schulz’s Social Democrats in the Bundestag, this week sought to lower expectations by saying mandatory vaccinations would only be required in the fall.
“The demand for mass vaccination is not the tool to break the current wave,” he said. He said Wiese. We will not be artificially motivated on this issue.”
Germany reported a record 81,000 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as the version of Omicron – which has already spread to neighboring Britain, France and Denmark – spread. According to the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, cases of infection that lasted for seven days amounted to 428 cases per 100,000 people.
With the vaccination campaign slowing again, Scholz’s goal of ensuring 80 percent of the population has had at least a first injection by the end of this month appears to be out of reach.
“Democratic leadership” or “rejection of leadership”?
The conservative German opposition, having been ousted after 16 consecutive years in power, feels there is an opportunity to inflict Schulz’s first political defeat. While Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leaders publicly support mandatory vaccination, they reprimand Schultz about the delays.
“If the chancellor said in the greatest crisis of our time that [mandatory vaccination] is the way out of the crisis, then the chancellor and his government will have to put forward a legislative proposal to do it in a way that is morally and constitutionally correct,” said Thorsten Fry, chair of the Conservative Whip, in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday.
Schulz replied that vaccination was “about our bodies … and that’s only why you should go that way,” referring to his decision to allow MPs to take the lead.
He added that handing over the initiative to parliament was an example of “democratic leadership.”
Not everyone agrees. Von Locke came up with a German compound word “refusal to drive – or “refusal to lead” – to describe Schulze’s tactics. “Of course he has the responsibility to lead. The consultant sets the policy guidelines, and in any dispute it is as necessary as a mandatory vaccination, of course [leadership] Von Lackey said.
Jürgen Walther, a professor of political science at Mainz University, said Schultz appeared to have underestimated the resistance of prominent FDP lawmakers when he took a hard line in November.
“He cannot be sure that the coalition will follow and therefore does not want to appear as a weak advisor,” Walther said. “He is relinquishing the leadership as an advisor to all Germans because the peace of the coalition is more important to him in the current situation,” he added.
A parliamentary vote on mandatory vaccination may only take place in March, after which Germany’s upper house of parliament – the Bundesrat – will also have to vote on the bill, meaning it won’t take effect until May or later.
Provided there is a majority in both houses for mandatory vaccination, given that political momentum could decline if coronavirus cases fall in the spring. Walther also noted that Omicron was less lethal than the Delta variant, which raised the question “whether the epidemic could not be defeated by other, less intrusive means.”
Adding to Schulz’s problems, Thomas Mertens, head of Germany’s Standing Committee on Immunization (STIKO), spoke out Thursday against the vaccination mandate. “This divides society, and it builds up a lot of pressure,” Mertens told the Stuttgarter newspaper Nachrichten, raising doubts about whether the mandate could be enforced.
But Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Institute for Public Policy in Berlin, said Schulz was “quite smart” by handing the initiative over to parliament. Schulz not only defused a potential first crisis in his government, but also came up with a solution that might lead to a better end result.
“There will be a number of draft laws developed by different groups in Parliament,” including for example limiting mandatory vaccinations to people 50 and older, Boehner said. He said Parliament could end with a plan more appropriate for the way the pandemic would develop in the coming months, rather than one linked to an assessment of the situation from last November.
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