Terror Aftermath

A Domestic Security Overhaul

Nach Anschlag auf Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt
A proposal by the interior ministry calls for more federal police. Source: Britta Pedersen/DPA

With Germany still in a state of shock after the December 19 truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has wasted little time drafting a masterplan to revamp the country’s security apparatus.

In an authored piece published Monday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Mr. de Maizière presented key points of a draft bill that would allow the federal government to take control of domestic intelligence, build deportation centers and have greater power to deport asylum-seekers suspected of posing a security threat.

The proposed legislation would also give the federal police more responsibilities, including authority to investigate unauthorized residents in Germany.

Reaction from the states has been prompt – and critical. “There’s no need for fundamental changes to Germany’s security infrastructure,” said Bavarian Interior Minster Joachim Herrmann. His counterpart in Schleswig-Holstein, Stefan Studt, said that centralization is “no cure-all.”

With Germany locked in a heated debate over its reaction to the Berlin attacks, Mr. de Maizière is clearly going to have a battle on his hands.

In an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday evening, the interior minister shrugged off criticism and defended his proposal. “We no longer live in the 50s or 60s,” Mr. de Maizière said, adding that it was high time for the state to live up to the international threats of the 21st century, which required more centralized control.

But tighter government control and centralized security agencies are issues Germans traditionally regard with much caution, given the country’s past under Nazi rule and mass surveillance in former East Germany.

“Arguments that we are supposedly abusing power in a democratic, constitutional state are extremely inappropriate,” Mr. de Maizière told ZDF, brushing off such concerns.

The interior minister’s proposal comes on the heels of the terrorist Berlin attack two weeks ago that killed 12 people and injured dozens. The prime suspect, a failed Tunisian asylum-seeker, was shot dead by Italian police four days later, with the radical Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the attack.

“The time has come for Germany to have greater capabilities to tackle national crises in the future,” Mr. de Maizière wrote, noting that the country lacks “federal jurisdiction to deal with national catastrophes,” while jurisdiction to fight international terrorism “is fragmented.”

Under Mr. de Maizière’s proposal, federal authorities would take full control of domestic intelligence, a responsibility that is currently shared between the federal government and the 16 states. The current arrangement has proven unwieldy in crisis situations that require swift coordination and action.

“Deportation centers are already legally possible and could be set up near airports.”

Thomas de Maiziére, Interior Minister

Mr. de Maiziére, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, also wants to beef up the federal investigative police forces, known as the Bundeskriminalpolizei (BKA), and expand the competence and scope of the federal police, the Bundespolizei, to become what he labeled “a real federal police force.” Responsibilities of the federal police are currently limited to patrolling borders, train stations and airports and assisting with crime prevention.

The Berlin attack has also intensified the debate on speeding up deportations, an issue also addressed by the interior minister. He proposes building federal deportation centers to return asylum-seekers rejected by the states to their home countries.

“Deportation centers are already legally possible and could be set up near airports,” he wrote.

The draft bill would also allow the federal government to detain and deport asylum-seekers suspected of posing a security threat and give it greater authority to renounce residency permits.

Europe Migrants
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière wants to overhaul Germany's security apparatus. Source: AP

For the states, the interior minister’s suggestions seem like an overreaction that even could make matters worse.

Mammoth organizations like the domestic intelligence agency, the labor office and refugee authority are not “great examples” of well-run organizations, said Boris Pistorius, the interior minister of Lower Saxony. He criticized Mr. de Maizière for propagating the law-and-order policy proposed at the recent party congress of the Christian Social Union, the smaller Bavarian sister party in Ms. Merkel’s conservative union, which has repeatedly demanded a tougher clampdown on terrorism and immigration.

Beyond Germany, Mr. de Maizière called on the European Union to loosen the definition of “safe country of origin,” meaning that residents there have no right to asylum. Then it would be possible, he argued, to stem the flow of migrants from North African countries.

Security is also hot-button topic with the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, which is in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel. A party policy paper drafted by SPD chairman and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas calls for increasing video surveillance, giving the state more power to detain and deport failed asylum-seekers suspected of posing a threat and unifying data communication systems used by federal, state and local security forces. They also proposed closing Salafist mosques and working with moderate Muslim communities to confront radical propaganda.

Mr. Gabriel also rejected the interior minister’s overhaul plans, saying there was no time to set up a commission to consider federalizing the police and wouldn’t respond to the “current challenges.” He  accused Mr. de Maziere of being too focused on tougher laws and less on the “cultural” battle to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.

Both the right-of-center Christian Democrats and left-of-center Social Democrats are zooming in on security as a key campaign issue ahead of federal elections later this year. The CDU, in particular, has seen its popularity steadily drop after its chairwoman, Ms. Merkel, allowed nearly 1 million mostly Middle Eastern refugees to enter the country in 2015. The far-right Alternative for German party has directly blamed her “open-door” refugee policy for the December truck attack.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Frank Specht contributed to this story. To contact the authors: blau@handelsblatt.com and specht@handelsblatt.com

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