Attack Aftermath A Breakthrough on Security

Germany's ruling parties have overcome some of their differences to agree on a package of security measures in the fight against terrorism, such as extending the period of pre-deportation detention and allowing electronic ankle tags.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Justice Minister Heiko Maas didn't mince words at their joint press conference following a meeting on security.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Justice Minister Heiko Maas threw the weight of their powerful ministries behind a package of tough security measures at a meeting on Tuesday, in the wake of the December 19 truck terrorist attack at a Berlin Christmas market where 12 people were killed and dozens more seriously injured.

Since the attack, politicians from Germany’s major parties have been falling over each other to come up with preventive solutions amid growing international threats and criticism from voters in an important election year.

Security has emerged as one of the top issues of the federal elections set to take place in September.

The center-left Social Democratic Party, down in the polls, has all but dropped its initial opposition to a number of tough law-and-order policies championed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union party. Both parties, together with the CDU's smaller Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, form Germany's "grand coalition" government.

We’re not starting from zero in any area. Heiko Maas, Justice Minister

The coalition partners intend to move quickly on the agreed measures, including tougher place-of-residence obligations and surveillance of individuals considered a potential danger.

“We’re not starting from zero in any area,” Mr. Maas told reporters after the meeting. What was agreed, he said, was a package of measures to be incorporated into new laws already in the pipeline and amendments being discussed.

One of the measures, according to Mr. Maas, a Social Democrat, involves extending to 18 months the period of time a rejected asylum seeker, classified as posing a threat, can be detained before being deported. Under the current law, people can be imprisoned only if their deportation is possible within three months.

Last June, Germany rejected the asylum application of the Berlin attacker, Anis Amri. But Tunis, his home country, initially denied he was a citizen and blocked his return. A new Tunisian travel document for the 24-year-old arrived only two days after Amri plowed a truck into a crowded Christmas market.

Several thousand citizens of North African nations, including those with almost no chance of obtaining asylum in Germany, are similarly lacking papers to return home.

"We want to do everything possible to ensure there is no repeat of the Amri case," Mr. Maas said.

Flowers and candles lie near the Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz square in Berlin, where the Christmas attack occurred on December 19.

Another related measure announced by the minsters includes cutting or ending development aid to countries that refuse to take back asylum seekers, as well as economic sanctions and visa restrictions.

Like other European countries, Germany agrees to the principe of  "less for less,” Mr. de Maizière said, adding that in talks with the Maghreb countries, “all spheres of politics will be included in those negotiations."

In Berlin, Mr. Maas also announced agreement over extending the use of electronic ankle tags to potential suspects. An earlier draft bill allowed electronic tagging for sentenced offenders only.

The ministers didn’t mention greater video surveillance of public areas and public transport networks, but action is expected here too following intensive debate over the issue across party lines.

The country boasts some of the world's toughest privacy laws but since the attack, lawmakers have sought to recalibrate the country's balance between security and privacy. Ms. Merkel earlier this week promised to maintain an appropriate balance between the two principles.

At the end of last year, the cabinet approved an amendment to Germany’s data protection law, which includes tight restrictions on the use of surveillance cameras.

There was also no mention of a broader overhaul of Germany's security apparatus. Mr. de Maizière created a stir last week with his proposal to centralize intelligence operations in the fight against terrorism. His plan calls for the federal government essentially taking control of domestic intelligence and giving federal police more responsibilities. The idea is to create a German Department of Homeland Security, based on the U.S. model.

His security master plan and the proposed measures announced Tuesday will require approval by German states. That could prove difficult, given opposition to some of the changes by the Green Party, which is represented in 11 of Germany’s 16 states. The party remains divided on the issue of security.


John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]