Coalition Negotiations

In terrorism age, privacy advocates fight back

Coalition talks balcony DPA
Balcony diplomacy. Senior leaders of the Free Democrats, Greens, Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union sought to clear the air at an informal gathering Sunday. Source: DPA

Given that coalition talks are expected to take until Christmas or beyond, Germany’s political parties seem to throw a lot of issues on the table at once. During meetings Monday, officials from the four parties hoping to enter into a governing coalition discussed everything from retirement policy to the digital economy, including education and research and the labor market.

The talks, which have already run for four weeks, are proving as difficult as expected. A first sort-of emergency informal session was held Sunday to clear the air after sniping last week between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, her sister party the Christian Social Union, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the left-leaning Greens. Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Green Party said in a radio interview Monday that it was “not unlikely that we will make this work.” Using a double negative is hardly a ringing endorsement for the so-called Jamaica coalition, named after the parties’ colors.

For a coalition to work, the four parties need to agree a common platform. One issue on Monday’s agenda – domestic security – could prove among the most challenging. That’s partly because, unlike many other policy challenges where one party is the outlier (for example on defense policy) the playing field here is level. Two parties – the CDU and CSU – emphasize security in the age of terrorism. The other two parties – the FDP and Greens – place a premium on protecting individual privacy.

The debate was thrown into sharp relief as police arrested a 19-year-old Syrian man for allegedly planning a serious terror attack.

That the Free Democrats and Greens see eye to eye is rare. The former is a pro-business, economically conservative, small-government party that favors a euro zone based on strict rules. The latter is left-leaning, favors larger social safety nets, more public spending, less austerity in Europe, and of course environmentally friendly policies.

Where these interests align is personal privacy. The Free Democrats, similar to libertarians like Senator Rand Paul in the United States, want to upend government requirements for telecom firms to hold onto personal data on everything from phone records to text messages to website visits. That is a cause the Greens are more than willing to back.

They are opposed by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Her interior minister, Thomas de Mazière, on Monday said times and security concerns have changed in the age of terrorism and cyber crime, and governments need to keep up. “We don’t need the same old debates of the 80s and 90s,” he said, referring to Germany’s historic privacy concerns stemming in part from the police state in the former East.

The debate was thrown into sharp relief on Tuesday as police said they arrested a 19-year-old Syrian man in the northern city of Schwerin. The suspect had allegedly been planning a “serious terror attack” since July, according to Mr. de Mazière. The timing of the arrest, he said, was ideal because authorities had been able to gather enough evidence without public safety being under threat.

Mr. de Mazière warned that the threat of terrorist attacks remains high in Germany, where memories still linger of a December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin that killed 12 people and injured more than 50.

“It can't be that criminals operate in World 4.0 and police are still investigating in World 1.0.”

Partick Sensburg, security expert, Christian Democrats

Data retention is one of those rare security laws where Germany is actually tougher than the United States, which doesn’t require telecom firms to store personal information, though the government can force companies to preserve data if they have due cause. The lack of a law also hasn’t stopped legal battles over whether police can exploit software loopholes in cell phones to track cell phones, for example.

The matter has long been controversial in Germany, where courts toppled an earlier data retention law back in 2010. An updated law passed in 2015 requires companies to hold onto personal data for 10 weeks. Location data from mobile phones must be stored for four weeks. The requirement was supposed to come into effect in July, but has been suspended pending fresh legal challenges.

Supporters in Germany argue that upgraded security laws are necessary to stop terrorist attacks and other criminal activity in the modern age. “We live in a digital world. It can’t be that criminals operate in World 4.0 and police are still investigating in World 1.0,” Partick Sensburg, a legal and security expert for the Christian Democrats, told Handelsblatt.

The Free Democrats and Greens counter that tackling digital crimes doesn’t give government the right to keep tabs on millions of individuals. “Instead of such mass monitoring of all citizens, we finally need efficient instruments and a targeted approach to concrete dangers,” Konstantin von Notz, a Green party member of parliament told Handelsblatt.

The two parties were joined this week by a group of non-governmental organizations that issued a policy paper calling on the Greens and FDP to fight hard to protect their cause. “The current ignorance of the European charter of basic human rights must end and the right to free communication must be restored,” reads the open letter from German NGOs. Earlier this month a group of state privacy advocates issued a similar plea to the two parties.

While this is shaping up to be one of the thornier issues in the coalition talks, some of the decisions may be taken out of the politicians’ hands. Germany’s constitutional court in Karlsruhe also has about 14 constitutional challenges to get through on the subject – one brought by the Greens themselves.

Even Christian Democrats like Mr. Sensburg agree the law will probably have to be “adjusted” to reflect the legal concerns. With so many issues still on the table, Jamaica coalition negotiators will make their job easier if they agree a compromise that the courts won’t be tempted to topple.

[This story was updated Tuesday with news of a terrorist suspect arrested.]

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, currently based in Washington DC. Dietmar Neuerer is a political correspondent with Handelsblatt based in Berlin. To contact the authors: cermak@handelsblatt.com and neuerer@handelsblatt.com

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