German Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz seemed demonstratively calm on Monday when he appeared before the press after a meeting of Angela Merkel’s cabinet at the Chancellery.

Scholz and his ministerial counterparts had just agreed to a massive aid package to prop up the country’s economy while the coronavirus spreads. Chancellor Angela Merkel had led the meeting, the finance minister said — though she was nowhere to be seen.

Since Sunday evening, Merkel has been working from home after being exposed briefly to a doctor who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, was quick to note that the chancellor’s decision to stay home was out of an abundance of caution. Merkel herself has also been tested, and that test came back negative. “Further tests will follow in the coming days,” Seibert said.

So for now, Merkel is governing Europe’s largest economy from home. How does that work? And who’s standing in for her at important meetings at the Chancellery?

Running a Country Remotely

“Never before in the history of the Federal Republic” had there been a cabinet meeting like Monday’s, Seibert said. But he wasn’t referring to the chancellor’s absence, but to the extraordinary measures the ministers had agreed on. For one, they passed a supplementary budget with new debt of 156 billion euros ($168 billion) — the first new debt taken on by Germany in six years.

The measure will be voted on by the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, on Wednesday, and by the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber, on Friday. Passing it will require amending the country’s “debt brake” balanced budget law.

Scholz and Seibert made a point of emphasizing that Merkel was perfectly capable of running the country from home. She is “able and well-equipped to conduct official business,” her spokesman said.

Merkel led the cabinet meeting by phone. Her ministers met at the Chancellery, but rather than crowd into the cabinet room, they convened in the larger International Conference Hall. That way they could maintain a safe distance from one another. Public health officials have been urging German residents to stay at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) from other people when they’re not at home.

Germany’s Official Line of Succession

According to Article 69 of Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, the chancellor must name a deputy. Since March 2018, this has been Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat.

Scholz will stand in for Merkel on Wednesday in the Bundestag, for instance. Originally, Merkel wanted to kick off the debate on battling the pandemic herself, but now she has asked Scholz to do so.

Merkel has never been absent from work for a longer period of time since gaining power 15 years ago. When she injured herself cross-country skiing in 2014, she continued governing from her hospital bed.

If she were to miss work for a longer period of time, say, for health reasons, her deputy, Scholz, would be next in the official line of succession. This is enshrined in the Procedural Rules of the Federal Government — Paragraph 8, to be specific. It says: The chancellor’s deputy must take over “all official business,” meaning duties could not be split up among various officials. But if Merkel is only limited in what she can do for some other reason, she can decide who should do what.

What’s interesting is that if Olaf Scholz were to also be incapacitated for some reason, it’s not really clear who’s next in line.

Scholz and Merkel could tap a minister to stand in for them in cabinet meetings. If they fail to, Paragraph 12 of the Procedural Rules goes into effect. This states that the minister “who has belonged to the government, uninterrupted, for the longest time” is to then take over.

In the current cabinet, that would be Economics Minister Peter Altmaier. According to an opinion by the Research Services of the German Bundestag, this minister could also conceivably take over all official government business.

Icon: Der Spiegel



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