Travelling on the Schulzzug

Last week, I have travelled through Germany and campaigned  together with the Jusos (young socialists, the party youth affiliated to the social democratic party (SPD)) for the upcoming federal elections. Besides offering support to my party, it was a good occasion to gather some impression of the current political mood in Germany. The following article reflects mainly my own opinion and impressions that I have formed during this trip.

Travelling on the Schulzzug

Last weekend, the Jusos Brussels – a section of the German party youth affiliated to the social democrats party (SPD) – organised a campaign action called the ‚Schulzzug‘ (German for ‚Schulz train‘) in which I was involved. The idea was to travel by train from Brussels to Berlin with stops in all sixteen regional states in Germany. There, we met with local sections of the Jusos and the SPD, took pictures and made videos with red paper train frames and masks of Martin Schulz for our social media, supported them in one of their campaign actions and interviewed them, asking them why they support Martin Schulz. The pictures and videos were uploaded on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

The action was inspired by the saying that went round in social media when Martin Schulz announced his candidacy for becoming chancellor that there was a Schulzzug rolling from Brussels to Berlin straight into the chancellor’s office. With no breaks. We thought that we could contribute by making something real out of it – a real train rolling from Brussels to Berlin. And who would be better placed to organise such a campaign action than we were in Brussels?

https://twitter.com/tagesschau/status/826841984149180420

Motivation and supporting young candidates 

The aim of the Schulzzug was obviously not to have a direct impact on the opinion polls. It would have been pretentious to think that we could come from Brussels for less than one week and convince people in about twenty different places that they should vote for the SPD. Maybe, we had a positive effect on the opinion of one citizen or another we met during local campaign actions. But the more tangible effect was that of motivating people who are campaigning for the same cause.

During our trip, we met many other members of our party who greeted us with much enthusiasm. Many complimented us for our commitment and might have felt inspired. Moreover, our trip somehow created a link between all the local sections that we met. We all felt part of a bigger project, symbolised by the Schulzzug – the train that rolls from Brussels to Berlin with no breaks. Everyone was somehow involved in our campaign, either by appearing on our social media or simply by talking with us, exchanging opinions and impressions.

One important contribution is that we managed to offer support to young candidates for the Bundestag by interviewing them and publishing the interviews on our Facebook and Instagram pages. Our social media pages – which are known all over Germany now – would give them a lot of visibility. Thus, we could help raise awareness about the concerns of young people and show that there is something at stake for us too. And, besides this, we could show that going into politics is not only something boring for old people, but it can actually be fun.

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Meeting the local section of the SPD in Trappenkamp

An impression of political numbness

This last point is crucial. In a way, our broader mission was to show how to engage with politics in an original and enjoyable way – make it more fun without however loosing the content of our political stance out of sight. Besides singing, making pictures, videos, distributing flyers and making interviews, we also had a lot of discussions and questions: What can be done to offer young people an easier access to education and a perspective for the future? How can it be made easier for a young couple to found a family without having to give up their professional projects? What can we do to live in a more just society? In what kind of Europe do we want to live?

It is important to highlight this process of political reflection because I have a feeling that too many people in Germany have lost their interest in politics. On our trip, I could not help having the impression that many people we met simply didn’t took notice of the electoral campaign. Very often, people simply ignored us, didn’t seem to care about the ongoing elections. Some people even told us explicitly that they would not vote because in the end it wouldn’t make a difference.

I cannot blame these people too much. There is a reason why people are turning their back on politics: With a grand coalition that has brought the two leading parties much closer and a weak opposition in the Bundestag, there is little dissent in German federal politics. The TV debate between Merkel and Schulz, which we watched at our final destination on Sunday, illustrated this very well. It seemed that both candidates almost didn’t differ on the issues that were discussed: the need to integrate refugees, fight extremism, return migrants who do not fulfil the conditions for asylum, the stance toward North Korea, etc. As rightly pointed out by Sebastian Stölting in his blogpost, Schulz failed to use the TV debate to create a momentum and enter a more confrontational debate with Merkel.

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The TV debate between Merkel and Schulz on 3 September failed to show significant points of dissent between the two leading candidates of CDU and SPD

Of course, this is not least due to the circumstance that many important topics such as education, health care, pensions or working conditions were simply left out of the debate. Yet, it is also due to the fact that the differences between the parties are difficult to recognise: both agree that the education system or digital infrastructure need to be improved, that the pensions system needs to be adapted to an ageing society, that some taxes need to be reduced, etc. And how could it be different? Even though Schulz was not part of the German government – he could not have come up with radically different positions because he would directly have been confronted with the question: So why didn’t your party act differently during the last term?

Time for a revival of Germany’s political culture

No matter what the outcome of the elections will be – I sincerely hope that there will not be a grand coalition again. The assimilation of our leading parties is detrimental to our political culture. I have recently learned a new word which describes the political mood in Germany very well: “Infantilism“. It describes the process of political detachment in which people have a feeling that everything is going well and let themselves lulled into complacency, not caring about political differences and alternatives. They are behaving like spoiled children who are happy with what they get and don’t want to take up any responsibility. The nickname “Mutti“ (German for „mommy“) commonly given to Merkel is symptomatic for how this trend is even celebrated in Germany’s political discourse.

No matter what the outcome of the elections will be – it is time for a stronger opposition, clearer differences between the parties and a revival of a more vibrant political debate culture. Prosperity and social justice are not the only aim of politics. Politics should also aim at democracy. And for democracy to work, we need responsible citizens who are able to form themselves an own opinion through discussion and reasoning. Political indifference is the first step to authoritarianism. That’s why I urge everyone not only to go to the ballot, but also to get involved in politics – be it in a party, in an association or a sport club. And that’s why I jumped on the Schulzzug in the first place – because I don’t want to leave decisions about the society I live in only to others and because I want to fight for political alternatives.

Laurin Berresheim, 2016 graduate of democracy

Disclaimer: This article reflects the author’s opinion it might not reflect the whole group’s opinion. The article can also be found at the Author’s blog, The Squirre’s Thought Box .

 

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Turning the tide? German Elections 2017: TV Debate Merkel vs. Schulz

The German federal election is held on the 24th of September, with its results highly anticipated in the European Union Member States, due to Germany’s significant influence on collective decisions. Recent polls, before the debate, suggest a win by Angela Merkels Christian Conservative party (CDU) over the Social Democrats (SPD), led by Martin Schulz, the former President of the EU Parliament, with a sizeable margin (CDU 38%; SPD 24%). Her fourth consecutive win, would extend her reign, since 2005, for another four years term and then match in length only with former chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU, 1982-1998). The debate was therefore referred to as a possible turning point or even the last chance for Martin Schulz to maintain a viable chance in winning the upcoming election.

No-one less than the ‘new Leader of the Free World’ is sought

Former US President Barack Obamas last call in office was dedicated to Angela Merkel, which led the Independent and subsequently other media outlets to conclude, that she is the ‘new Leader of the Free World’. At least it might be so in the opinion of Obama, who praised her leadership frequently after the election of Donald Trump. However, several experts and pundits across the world aligned with these remarks. Especially fostered through Trump, often as reckless or childish proclaimed, policy decisions and manners, which deteriorated the image of the President of the United States in an unprecedented way.
If this claim to the honorary title is not only to understand as a personalized one, to Merkel’s often as prudent described leadership skill, but in a broader sense related to Germanys position as a leading state, boosted by a solid and strong economy, which provides effective leverage on multilateral decisions made in Europe and beyond, this title travels ex officio to the next chancellor in charge. This truly would justify a huge attention to the contest for power in the central European state. On the contrary, the campaign so far and its non-producing of exciting theme complexes, nor contested arguments about anything is widely perceived in the public as ‘boring as usual’. For the electorate it seems hard to distinguish between the positions of the biggest parties in German politics. They are wildly observed as alike, which might be explained through the reoccurring of a ‘big coalition government’ by the same in the past. This apparently makes it hard for politicians to single-out their very own achievements in the past and alleged difference policy approach pursued in the future.

Strategic restraint vs. a whiff of populism

A TV debate between the two most promising candidate for chancellorship in Germany is already a fixture in an election year. Angela Merkel (CDU), is infamously known for her very slow reaction to breaking news and non-surprisingly therefore refused again, after 2005, 2009 and 2013, to contest in more than merely one TV debate. Martin Schulz (SPD) appeared in the campaign once in a while willing to put some populist twist into his approach of challenging Merkel and by this unsuccessfully tried to win over public support. Infamously he accused Merkel to be ‘anti-democratic’, in the understanding that she more or less purposely refuses to make clear policy statements and campaign pledges, which would foster a lively debate in Germany about different pathways, on which society and state could evolve. Furthermore, brought up by observers, Merkel strategically avoided to name Schulz in any regard, which helps her to appear actually uncontested. Several direct confrontations are therefore seen as an advantage for the contender Schulz from the Social Democrats. Anyhow, as this is not happening, the debate on last Sunday shall have attracted an even higher attention. It was viewed live by more than 16 million people. In regard of general given attention, Merkel’s tactic admittedly works, in 2013 17,4 million and 2009 even 21 million Germans followed the Live TV Debate.

Debate topics vs. interest of the public

The most disappointing participants at the debate have certainly been the four interviewers by the various German TV channels and their highly selective questions. It was quite astonishing to realize that about two thirds of the 90 minutes debate time was used up for the topic migration and Islam. Additionally was the last third overshadowed by a huge portion spend on the relation to Turkey and even the international tensions around North Korea and the handling of it through US President Trump. How all this lays at the heart of interest of the general public and not only of right-wing driven factions is questionable. Media critics said it seems the interviewers have apparently feared criticism of being not harsh enough on the contestants with controversial topics and therefore showed predisposed obedience.

The integration of slightly more than one million asylum seekers is certainly a challenge posed to the German society and state, even though a well-balanced perspective shall be maintained. Germany has a population of 82 million people, faces a looming demographic crisis due to constant low reproduction rates paired with a constant growing demand for labor, boosted by a solid and strong economy.
The debate constantly circulated around questions about how to deport people who have been denied asylum and furthermore, how to thwart the influence of foreign powers and especially the ones with Islamist interests onto migrants living in Germany. From here the debate drifted apparently seamless also to the four million Muslims currently living in Germany. The positions here did not differ at all. Both contestants tried to show their decisiveness, in combating extremism and deny those adherents any foothold in Germany, while expressing that respect towards all citizens is crucial. Merkel repeated a former German President’s famous sentence that Islam is a part of German society, she stressed that these citizens as well form the base for economic prosperity.

Schulz tried to expose Merkel with his bold statement of canceling completely the EU-Membership negotiations with Turkey. Merkel responded, arguing on technical matters, that this decision can be taken only unanimously among all EU member states. She added, a bit contradicting herself and therefore confusing, that she wants to state clearly that she has opposed Turkish membership from the very beginning.

Well, all these more or less petty fights made it easy to overlook that education and infrastructure have not been mentioned at all. While the unsustainable retirement and social system, rising social inequality and prevalent low-paid jobs got devoted only one sentence each – in the final ‘do you agree with this statement’- round. Quite a shame if we consider that there are more than 8,3 million pupils and 2,8 million students in Germany, who, and their respective families, would like to had their issues addressed. On Schulz side, this would certainly had gave him the chance to repeat his campaign promise to increase the federal student grant and increase state spending on educational infrastructure. While for the car driving population Schulz at least managed to sneak in his position to repeal the already parliamentary approved, bi-partisan as Merkel pointed out, Autobahn toll system.

The lack of addressing a wide range of topics and problems which many Germans might experience more on a daily basis caused a public outcry through social media channels, which led to severe criticism of the four interviewers.

Foreign policy, statesmanship and Europe

In its final moments the debate ran bizarre, when questions circled around the North Korean crisis, what Germany is doing and say could be in it and how to keep the western world on track in opposition to Donald Trump lack of leadership skills. Merkel keenly recalled all the foreign state leaders she is in constant contact with, to avoid any military escalation, which she as well as Schulz firmly opposes. On this, both candidates knew the general public in Germany decidedly agrees. In his regard Schulz, as experts claimed, failed to keep up with Merkel’s foreign policy experience. However, it has to be mentioned that across the debate he repeatedly called for European approaches to problems. He strongly condemned eastern European states and their lack of solidarity and support to foster those solutions. He declared himself in favor of tighten the grip on fellow member states that benefitted for years from the EU and now sabotage its common efforts. However, he blames Merkel and her unilateral moves in the heat of the 2015 migration crisis to be the origin of current misunderstandings and lack of coherence within the EU. Even though Schulz would have acted doubtless similar, for instant he declared it unfeasible and undesirable to close down any borders. Anyhow, Schulz condemned therefore Merkels statement, given to a newspaper, that she ‘would do everything again as she did in 2015’.

Still undecided

The debate was followed up by immediate polls, to declare as soon as possible a winner of the debate. The results named Merkel as winner, because she came across more experienced and less excited than her opponent. However, before the debate every second German voters declared to be still undecided, who to vote for. New polls show now, this debate has not changed much on that fact. It can be concluded that the clear trend to a re-election of Angela Merkel however remains unbroken.

Schulz needs to start a momentum to keep a win a viable possibility and end Merkel’s drowsy approach to politics. To do so he needs to find a way in attracting the attention of the electorate and convince them of a necessary change. A way would be to make them aware that Merkel has effectively over the last ten years not once accurately tackled systemic problems of the German economy and tax laws, which only reinforce the strong trend of a growing social inequality and financial unsustainability in the health care and pension scheme. Through the complex German election process and the wide variety of possible governing coalitions the German Election 2017 nonetheless stays a promising political event to follow.

 

(An analysis how the left might argue to win over public support and what preconditions have to be met, also electoral results wise, to achieve a parliamentary majority for a Leftist-Coalition has the author published at an earlier date.)

Sebastian Stölting studied Political Science in Dreden and Cairo and currently follows the Research Master in Social Science: Specialization in Comparative & International Politics at the University of Amsterdam.

Disclaimer: This article reflects the author’s opinion it might not reflect the whole group’s opinion. Picture Screengrab by Reuters

The Left needs to dump YOU!

Each left-wing movement in Europe has its own intricansies, but almost all of them were born of the Labour movement. After the industrial revolution, poor people, working class rallied together in center-left parties for more rights like paid sick leave, Universal Healthcare, social benefits. Social democratic parties were the party where the masses rallied in hope for a better life. Now the masses couldn’t be more detached from Social democratic parties. In Britain, the Labour Party is just the third most popular party among the working class, in France, the Front National also leads by a wider margin among working class while the socialist party drowns in popularity with this group of people and the same story happens in the Netherlands, Austria and many other countries. Center left parties are, in some cases, more popular among rich people than with poor people. Why this is happening? Very simple: Center left parties were once the party of the poor, unemployed, the factory worker, the uneducated, disaffected the one who was against the establishment. Now Center left parties are the party of the well connected, the rich, the college professor and the corporate lawyer.

Center left parties had once a clear agenda because they were made by working class people and for working class people; they knew clearly what they want and what were their priorities. They knew their struggles and their problems and wanted to solve them. Now, center left parties aren’t made essentially by the same people as before. They are leaded by elitist people who don’t have a clue how life is outside college campus or big cities. For some of these elitist people, going to a disaffected community or a desindustrialized area may be a field trip or a campaign stop but it will be never be their reality, their struggle, their problems, so working class or people in those communtities will never see them as their own representative.

 

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Verhofstadt Surrenders to Political Opportunism

The presidential elections in the European Parliament last week have shown low instincts and political intrigues at their best. Opportunism and the strive for power have prevailed over political integrity and the adherence to values and ideas. Guy Verhofstadt has best illustrated how quickly one can fall prey to the little intrigues and deals that animate life in politics. The man who has strongly endeavoured to become known as the fiercest defender of democratic values and pro-European ideals has not shied away from playing Continue reading “Verhofstadt Surrenders to Political Opportunism”

Coming out as a leftwing Zionist

The recent decision by US President Barack Obama to not veto a critical UN-Security Council Resolution regarding Israel has re-erupted a decades old discussion. What to do with one of the most long-lasting conflicts in modern times? The discussion is not just one of many. It has become a rallying point of many ideological stances, the nuance is gone, black and white are the only choices. You are either for or against. There is no middle ground.

As a leftwing European I often feel quite isolated with my Zionist stances. Yes. I am a Zionist. Even a proud one. But in Europe, certainly in leftwing circles, it is not easy anymore to come out as one. Continue reading “Coming out as a leftwing Zionist”

How to beat Merkel – and while doing so Socialists might also save the EU

Angela Merkel has just announced to re-run for the German Chancellorship in the upcoming Fall 2017 general election. If she wins she can prolong her reign, which started in 2005, a total of 16 years, the biggest in German history (tied only with Helmut Kohl 1982 – 1998, CDU). Over the years the reasoning by experts for her uncontested leadership, although with changing coalition partners, has varied but subsequently acclaimed she holds a high level of trust.

Continue reading “How to beat Merkel – and while doing so Socialists might also save the EU”

Soft Security: A Natural Tool for the EU

After the Austrian presidential elections and the Italian referendum there are mixed feelings around Europe. The public opinion praises the fact that the far-right lost an election – despite the fact that their approval rating is still very high meaning they are not going away soon – and some mourned the anti-establishment statement of the Italian people by voting no to the constitutional reforms. In the year of Brexit and the election of Continue reading “Soft Security: A Natural Tool for the EU”

Italia Sì, Italia No: Explaining Tomorrow’s Referendum

On December 4th the Italian people will be called to the polling stations with a heavy lift on their shoulders: the Italian Constitution. But what exactly are we going to vote on? The campaigns have been intense and, therefore, we would like to dispel some myths surrounding the YES and NO camps.

Despite the desperate and harmful attempt to make this vote a test for the government – or rather of PM Matteo Renzi – by the very same Democratic Party and the oppositions, this referendum is about the much more lasting structure of the Italian institutions.

Continue reading “Italia Sì, Italia No: Explaining Tomorrow’s Referendum”

Geert Wilders & Israel; the integrity of Dutch journalism

The morning of December 2nd, Dutch leading and traditionally left wing newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ published two extensive articles about PVV-leader Geert Wilders. They found out that Dutch Intelligence Services (AIVD) investigated Wilders in 2009-2010 regarding his relations with Israel. His loyalty was called into question as well to what extent he was being influenced by his Israeli connections. A sensitive topic one might think just a few months before election time and with Wilders leading in the polls. Continue reading “Geert Wilders & Israel; the integrity of Dutch journalism”

Towards the Left’s Renaissance

Humiliated during five years of a dull, useless, pathetic mandate [1], French Socialism is down, as dishonoured and loathed as the British, Spanish, Italian and Greek ones. To achieve such a catastrophic failure, the Left had to make some mistakes, on top of which is the decision of European leaders to join their forces with the right or to let the mind of its leaders be polluted by the social-liberal propaganda according to which capitalism, after all, can be a nice creature. The private sector, acting as its standard bearer, spent the last ten years prospering upon the ashes and ruins left by the so-called crisis which never harmed the rich, but allowed them to launch a global attack on the workers and their rights. Now squashed by the possessing class’s interests and yoke, they’re leaving the Left as in a crepuscular exile towards extremism, putting our backs against the wall: what went wrong with the Left? Answers can be found in France and applied on a European level.

Continue reading “Towards the Left’s Renaissance”