Prime Ministers’ Conference: A Power-Conscious Discussion Group |


Status: 05/10/2023 12:44 p.m

One of the legacies of the pandemic is undoubtedly the prominence of prime ministerial conferences. Instead of Corona, it is now about refugee policy. About a discussion group with a lot of power consciousness.

It’s actually not worth mentioning when Bodo Ramelow is playing on his cell phone, Jens Spahn is eating a chocolate bar or Olaf Scholz is grinning “smurfily”. Actually. Unless all of this happens during the Prime Ministers’ Conference. This is what happened in the many rounds of meetings between the state leaders and the federal government during the pandemic.

The pandemic may have subsided, but one of its legacies is undoubtedly that the whole republic is now aware of the Prime Ministers’ Conference. The MPK, as it is called for short, was the fixed point, the unofficial situation center, where discussions, arguments and decisions were made. Freedom against health protection, nationwide rules against patchwork. Occasionally with hard bandages.

For a long time, the public took little notice of this discussion group, which has existed since 1954. That changed abruptly when the republic was somewhat unprepared for the rampant Covid 19 pathogen. Now politicians had to act quickly, and the federal and state governments had to coordinate at lightning speed. The prime ministers’ conference found its purpose almost overnight.

Heated mood

These days it is the aftermath of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine that is setting the agenda. Questions such as how Germany can accommodate the many refugees – from Ukraine, but also from other countries of origin. Again the countries meet with the chancellor.

Stephan Weil, Prime Minister in Hanover and currently Chairman of the MPK, calls for Berlin to contribute more to the costs. “More must come from the federal government in this regard,” said the SPD politician in March after an MPK. “These will certainly not be easy talks.”

The countries go into the talks on Wednesday as one and agreed on a joint paper.

It sounds like a showdown

So that no one has any doubts that the state group is serious, two Union heavyweights in the state group followed suit: Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia. When Markus Söder and Henrik Wüst gave a joint press conference in Munich in April, they made no secret of their displeasure with the federal government’s refugee policy.

Wüst warned that “the federal government would break its word”. The people who come to Germany and the municipalities would be left in the lurch. The CDU politician threatens: “We will know how to prevent that.” Again it sounds like a showdown at the MPK. Since then, the confrontational atmosphere between the federal and state governments has only heated up.

“Conference of Little Kings”

Chairman Weil recently gave an interesting insight into how the group sees itself. “We had a normal MPK today,” he said. And then added: “So without the federal government.” It was less dramatic. The message: when the states are among themselves, they quickly agree – especially when it comes to the federal government.

It’s no secret that the prime ministers’ conference is a power-conscious group. The “world” wrote many years ago that it was a “conference of little kings”. The 16 heads of government are also senior representatives.

Meeting with the prime ministers of the federal states and the federal government in the chancellery in Berlin.

leadership reserve for the Berlin stage

Sometimes ridiculed as the senior government president, because from Berlin’s point of view, state politics consists primarily of administrative action. To be observed as powerful contenders for something higher. After all, whoever governs a federal state can of course, according to their own understanding, also govern the republic. In a way, they are the contemporary version of the princes and dukes of yore. Leadership reserve for the Berlin stage. They meet at least four times a year, twice with the chancellor.

Unlike the Bundesrat, the MPK is not known to the Basic Law. “The Prime Ministers’ Conference is not a constitutional body,” writes the current presidency of Lower Saxony, pointing out that the resolutions are not legally binding. Not legally – but politically they are. However, this did not prevent individual countries in the pandemic from saying goodbye to the joint decisions the very next day, or at least interpreting them in their own way.

The federal states accuse the federal government of incorrectly calculating the refugee grants.

confident countries

The constitution provides for the Bundesrat to be responsible for the participation of the federal states in legislation. In the event of a dispute, the Mediation Committee should mediate. However, this has happened less frequently in the recent past than it did ten years ago. A “preliminary clarification” of important laws in the MPK can make life easier.

The self-image of the German states is ambivalent. On the one hand, you are a state within a state, part of the federal state. Everything has to be shared: the money, the responsibilities, the skills and the staff. Nevertheless, one insists on independence.

The population, on the other hand, wants practical uniformity from Flensburg to Passau. The Basic Law speaks of “equal living conditions”. The countries have to orientate themselves on this. The former Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) therefore saw the MPK and the many specialist ministerial conferences as an “expression of a bad conscience” on the part of the states to comply with this wish of the people.

It’s about the energy crisis, about a lot of money, but also about criticism from the countries that the traffic light coalition is making decisions over their heads.

Berlin is far away

The former Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, said: “It is not the federal government that holds the federal states, but the federal states that hold the federal government.” This is an expression of the self-confidence of the countries. They are historically older than the nation state.

Even after the war, the countries made the start. The Ellwanger circle of state representatives, primarily from the CDU, came together in 1947 in the Aalen district. The “Ritterfallen Conference” in Koblenz met in 1948. There the states paved the way to the constitutional convention in the same year and later to the parliamentary council, which drafted the Basic Law in Bonn until 1949.

To this day, the states are of the opinion that they understand more about practical politics than the federal government. After all, Berlin is far away, the federal states know the local problems, they have the administrations. You can wish for a lot in Berlin – on site you know how to do it. That is a basic melody of German federalism. It should sound again at the MPK.

The dispute over the care of refugees has been smoldering for a long time. What about migration policy?

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