Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said expanding the powers of the federal police was essential for Germany to confront a growing terrorist threat. He also called for Germany’s regional intelligence authorities to be merged into a single service under Berlin’s authority.
“Given the possibility for crisis and catastrophe in Germany…we must accept that our country has to be better prepared for difficult times than it has been,” de Maizière wrote in a full-page essay in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “It is time to strengthen Germany’s ability to respond to crises.”
The proposals, if realized, would effectively reverse the decentralized security architecture imposed on Germany after the war that divides responsibilty for the country’s internal policing among its federal states. Determined to ensure post-war Germany does not devolve into another dictatorship, the U.S. and its allies insisted on limiting the central government’s oversight of internal security, vesting regional governments with such powers instead.
Decades later, critics of that system, both among police and in the political realm, say the unwieldy structure has outlived its usefulness, leaving Germany exposed to attacks like the one in Berlin.
The jurisdiction of Germany’s federal police, for example, is limited to railway stations, airports and borders. Regional police authorities from Germany’s 16 states handle all other police work, a system that has often hampered coordination across Germany’s internal borders.
Intelligence gathering poses another challenge. Instead of a single domestic intelligence service, like MI5 in the U.K. or the American FBI, Germany relies on a network of 16 state authorities.
Last month’s terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, which left 12 dead, exposed the shortcomings of that system.
Anis Amri, the Tunisian believed to have hijacked a truck and driven it into the market, was able to travel freely around Germany even though authorities considered him dangerous and had slated him for deportation.
De Maizière’s initiative appeared, at least in part, to be an attempt to deflect criticism of the government’s handling of Amri, an asylum seeker who arrived in Germany in 2015. The case has reopened the debate over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies just as the campaign for fall elections gets underway.
After the Christmas market killings and other recent attacks, the question of how to improve domestic security is at the top of voters’ minds, especially as it concerns foreigners.
The reforms outlined by de Maizière are unlikely to become reality before the elections, if at all. Even so, his proposals underscore Merkel’s desire to reassure voters of her strong commitment to security, long a core theme for her center-right Christian Democrats.
In addition to pushing for an overhaul of the security services, de Maizière also called for relaxing privacy rules that he said hindered the police’s ability to pursue suspects by using DNA and biometrics.
Despite growing terrorism fears, expanding the powers of the police and intelligence services in a society that gave birth to both the Gestapo and East Germany’s Stasi is bound to be fraught.
De Maizière sought to address those concerns by recalling democratic Germany’s long record of respecting civil liberties.
“The state is not the adversary of a free society but its instrument,” he wrote. “The democratic state doesn’t threaten freedom, it protects it.”
He also argued that Germany’s allies in Europe and beyond expected it to assume a greater role in confronting security threats.
De Maizière, a close Merkel ally, isn’t the only prominent German politician pushing for reform.
Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, who is likely to run against Merkel for the chancellorship, called on Monday for more video surveillance and the closure of radical mosques. Yet Gabriel and his Social Democrats (SPD) oppose de Maizière’s centralized vision for the security services, which they argue would create more bureaucracy, not less.
The government should instead redouble its efforts to integrate refugees by sending more social workers to asylum shelters, and with a “communications offensive” in social media, Gabriel said.
“If we only rely on tightening the laws, we will lose,” Gabriel said.
Author: MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG