The wish list of interior ministers wanting to crack down on terrorism and tighten up overall security in Germany has never been so long – and never so controversial.
At their annual three-day conference, which began Monday in Dresden, the heads of Germany’s 16 state interior ministries are discussing 52 law enforcement issues where they see a need for closer collaboration. While fighting terrorism is their undisputed top priority in the wake of the December Christmas market terrorist attack, opinions vary on how best to do so.
Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachhim Hermann has come to Dresden in eastern Germany with an agenda. He’s demanding random police checks across the country. Not all states have the same rules on spot checks. In Bavaria, for instance, police can randomly search people’s cars, clothing, bags and identity, while in neighboring Baden-Württemberg they can only check identities. Berlin, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, allow no spot checks at all.
Referring to those three states, Mr. Hermann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, told public radio Deutschlandfunk: “This blatant security gap urgently needs to be closed.” According to the Bavarian interior ministry, some 21,220 crimes, including 4,300 violations of immigration law, were uncovered last year as a result of the spot checks.
“Germany can't afford to have two zones of security.”
Saxony’s Interior Minister Markus Ulbig, who is chairing the conference, called for an end to the “patchwork” of security measures. “Germany can’t afford to have two zones of security,” he said in an interview with the public broadcaster ARD.
Bavaria and Saxony also want to see the age lowered for biometric identification measures, such as fingerprints and iris scans. The current minimum age is 14. Mr. Ulbig said plans were underway to lower it “to six-year-olds,” claiming children and women are increasingly being indoctrinated by radical Islamists. Even though the European Union also backs fingerprinting children, observers doubt the measure will win the approval of the Social Democrats and Ms. Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union, which together control most states.
Ahead of elections in September, the CDU hopes to stave off criticism from nationalist opponents over the chancellor’s liberal immigration policy, which has seen more than 1.2 million asylum-seekers enter the country since 2015, with targeted proposals to expand the state’s security capabilities. These include using electronic ankle bracelets to monitor people thought to be a security threat and granting the state broader detention powers for asylum seekers.
Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is repeating his demand to unify police communication systems, centralize intelligence services and strengthen the federal police force that, under current law, is only allowed to operate in transportation hubs and near borders. The minister also hopes to convince his colleagues at the state level of the need to allow security authorities access to private messaging services such as WhatsApp. While officials are allowed to tap phones, they are prevented by law from monitoring encrypted online services that terrorists are using more and more, according to the interior minister.
Germany has been steadily increasing domestic security measures over the past two years. New facial recognition software is being tested together with high-definition surveillance cameras in railway stations.
Yet the country, seriously threatened by terrorism, continues to struggle with how far it can go because of its dark history of concentrated security and unchecked surveillance under the Nazis and later the Stasi, the secret police in the former East Germany. Its federalized security system, unique among major international powers, devolves police powers primarily to the 16 states, and puts firewalls between the different security and intelligence services.
The December terrorist attack, in particular, raised concerns that this system may be ill-equipped to deal with today’s threats. It has also exposed the tightwire Ms. Merkel is walking between protecting civilians and preserving their civil rights.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org