Our new government, Kabinett Merkel IV, was sworn in last Wednesday. Besides Chancellor Merkel, there are 16 ministers from the ranks of the CDU, CSU and SPD. But one of them has been hogging the spotlight since before the swearing began: Minister of Health Jens Spahn. Exberliner readers may remember Spahn for complaining last August that some waiters in Berlin only speak English. And people understandably didn’t take that well.
His latest provocation? In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost, the 37-year-old conservative politician said:
“Hartz IV doesn’t mean poverty. […] This way everyone has what they need. Of course more would be better. But we can’t forget that others are paying for these benefits with their taxes.”
Hartz IV, the long-term unemployment benefit in Germany, provides €416 a month, plus rent and insurance. The official poverty rate in Germany in 2015 was €1033 a month. The average Berliner spends 27.2% of their income on rent – which means a poor person should have at least €752 after rent. This means the vast majority of Hartz IV recipients are far below the poverty line.
Why does Spahn, at the beginning of his ministerial career, feel the need to make such willfully ignorant and cold-hearted remarks? The internet assumes he is simply oblivious. This is a man who gets €15,311 per month from the state. That’s 36.8 times what a Hartz IV recipient gets – all paid for by other people’s taxes.
But I think something more sinister is at work. Angela Merkel has been chancellor for… let me check… something like 125 years now (okay, 13). In this time, her conservative party has emphasized consensus and moderation. But after the xenophobic AfD got 12.6 percent in last year’s elections, more and more voices within the CDU (including a certain Spahn) have called for racist and aggressively right-wing policies.
Spahn is anything but oblivious. His message: no more “compassionate conservatives”. The new government is going to attack the poor, immigrants, and anyone who can be presented as an “other”. Instead of just doing his job as Health Minister – making sure we have a good healthcare system – it looks like Spahn will be spending a lot of his time and energy trying to woo AfD voters back to the CDU.
So of course Spahn has me worried. The internet is comparing him to Marie Antoinette. But a figure like this can also inspire people to protest. Let’s not forget how Marie Antoinette ended!