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“A coalition is not a love match” – Interview with Ralf Fücks

By Ralf Fücks

Are the German Greens compatible with Angela Merkel? How can we explain the success of the xenophobic ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) party? And what awaits Europe in the year 2017? GEJ sat down with Ralf Fücks, the outgoing President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, to talk about Christian Democrats, Trump, and the upcoming German election, as well as the foundation’s development over the past 20 years.

There are more and more liberal and left-leaning people in Germany (even among Green voters) who say they are contemplating casting a vote for the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany). Why is Chancellor Angela Merkel, the party’s leader, so popular in these circles?

Ever since the Chancellor decided to open the borders for the refugees stuck in Hungary, there has been a change in perception in the Green, as well as in the liberal and left-wing, milieu. Today, many see Angela Merkel as the protector of democratic values and the representative of pragmatic reason in Europe. In times of political turmoil, stability is a great political factor. With the election victory of Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe, and with Marine Le Pen as a candidate for the French election, Merkel has turned into a central political figure who is respected by many Greens. Additionally, under Merkel, the CDU is taking a much more centrist stance on a number of issues, such as energy and family policy, than they did before.

When it comes to dealing with the issue of Russia and Ukraine, there is even greater support for Merkel’s policies among Green voters than among CDU sympathisers. The greatest support for a critical stance towards Russian politics can be found among the Greens. So Greens will be cautious not to run an anti-Merkel campaign, for fear of losing voters.

But if the Greens support Merkel, they might run the risk of losing voters to a party to the left of the Greens…

The Greens won’t run a “Merkel has to go” campaign, but neither will they say “Merkel has to remain chancellor.” The Greens will instead emphasise that they are an independent party with its own programme. In the end, the next government depends on one question: what alternative is there to Merkel? The Greens will not decide on a preferred form of coalition prior to the election: neither a Black-Green coalition (CDU and Greens), nor a left-wing government (a coalition with the social democratic SPD and the radical left-wing Die Linke).

On social and tax issues there are more similarities with the SPD than with the CDU, but when it comes to energy policies there is less convergence with the social democrats; not to mention on international affairs.

We are experiencing a crisis of the West. It is questionable whether the US is still going to stand for transatlantic values in times of a President Trump. The project of European integration is also on the brink. We are confronted with self-confident authoritarian regimes, such as China, Iran, and Russia; and simultaneously, there is also a revolt on the inside. This is a completely new political constellation. Can a left-wing coalition be the right response to this challenge? There are many who doubt this. Those who believe that the campaigns can be run with the same messages as four years ago will be confronted with a terrible surprise.

You could argue that Merkel has borrowed many of her policies from the Greens, such as her decision to shut down nuclear power plants and to open the borders for refugees. Is this appropriation damaging for the Greens?

We can be self-confident, and we can look at this as the success of Green politics. In the last 20 years, we have managed to push a number of issues from the margins to the centre of the political debate. This applies to the nuclear phase-out, the “Energiewende” (the move towards a new, renewable energy supply in Germany), equality policies, the rights of sexual minorities, to a more open minded immigration policy, the concept of citizens’ participation, and the bottom-up democratic participation. The political culture of the Bundesrepublik (Federal Republic of Germany) underwent a great transformation in the last 30 years, and the Greens were one of the driving forces of this change.

It didn’t hurt the Greens that many of these topics have become mainstream in the last few years. On the contrary, we have grown into a new role. And that’s exactly where the challenge lies: we need to influence the politics of the Bundesrepublik from the centre. We are part of the government in 11 out of 16 federal states, as parts of fundamentally different coalitions, from Black-Green (CDU-Greens) to Red-Red-Green (left-wing government). In fact, the German Greens have been a central feature of the social and political landscape for a long time; nevertheless, we still feel as if we were an opposition party on the margin of the political spectrum.

The time has come for the Greens to stand on the same level as the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats and fight together for the political leadership of the country. Many members of the party are still afraid to take on this role. They prefer to cultivate the image of a radical minority. The example of Winfried Kretschman, the Green Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg, however, shows that Greens can form new societal alliances that reach well beyond the core milieu of the Greens. That of course needs appropriate personal selection and a different form of political speech.

Should we be prepared for a coalition between Greens and the CDU?

If there is a mathematical possibility of a Black-Green coalition, following the election this autumn, I am sure there will be serious negotiations about it. And in case that’s the only alternative to another grand coalition (between CDU and SPD), there will be a great push from the public to seek out this alternative. By now everyone is weary of the grand coalition, even the CDU and the SPD.

Black-Green would be a symbol of bridge building between ecology and the economy. An alliance for ecologic modernising – for me, this aspect would form the basis of such a coalition. The second main task would be the protection of liberal democracy. The decision on whether to form a coalition must be made based on these two criteria. At the moment, I don’t see any unbridgeable differences that would disqualify this option.

What about some of the anti-liberal tendencies inside the CDU? Angela Merkel has for example embraced a ban on the burqa, and inside the party there are members who wouldn’t shy away from getting closer to the AfD (the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party).

In the near future, there won’t be any coalitions between CDU and AfD. The particular issue of a ban on a full-body veil in public institutions is a question that is controversially debated even among liberal democrats and feminists. One can reasonably argue that the burqa is not an expression of freedom of religion, but a symbol of the depersonalisation of women, who are intended to be made invisible in public. This goes against the requirements of human dignity and equal rights.

We must ask ourselves whether we are ready to relativise these principles in the name of cultural tolerance. I am against the relinquishment of universal democratic values under the smokescreen of multiculturalism. A multicultural immigration policy can only be accepted by the people if we are ready to uncompromisingly defend the basic democratic values.

Moreover, this is not about the notion of seeing Merkel and the CDU as perfect. Coalitions are not love matches, but alliances made for a purpose, and are decided upon by the existence of similarities on key questions. And the core topics today, that are decisive for such a coalition, are the ecological transformation of the industrial society, and the protection of liberal democracy.

In the current political situation, the political centre must be strengthened to hold up against the extremes. Therefore, it is not groundless to talk about a coalition with the Christian Democrats, who have – as I have already mentioned – moved towards the centre under the leadership of Merkel.

How can you explain the current popularity of the AfD? How has such a strong populist and xenophobic party been able to develop in Germany, a country that for many decades seemed to be immune to extreme right-wing politics?

Germany is not an island isolated from the developments across Europe. There are even bigger groups that don’t like the direction their country is going in. They want to fight against feminism, the equality of homosexuals, and against the growing cultural and religious diversity of our societies. They see the EU as a threat to national sovereignty, they fear social decline, and they see themselves as losers of globalisation.

All these motives of the anti-liberal revolt also exist in Germany, but still to a much smaller extent than in many other countries: the AfD is nowhere near as strong as the French Front National, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), or the right-wing populists of Scandinavia.

Germany is, due to its economic prosperity and the capacity of its welfare state, still a relatively stable society. The difference between having a right-wing populist – and to some extent right-wing extremist – party with 15 percent support, or one that has 30 percent support, is not yet irrelevant. I hope that the size of the AfD’s support can be kept low enough to avoid tipping the balance of the whole political landscape, as it is the case in France, where Marine Le Pen is determining the public discourse.

The polls, the media, commentators, and even politicians were surprised by Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump. Can Germany experience a similar upset?

We have all become cautious when it comes to forecasting developments. But I still believe that the democratic immune system of Germany is strong enough to prevent the breakthrough of the AfD. This also depends on whether the democratic parties are capable of conveying that they have understood what the warning signs mean. We cannot go on doing politics in the old style; instead we need to seriously debate the questions of social participation, and take seriously the fears from untamed global concurrencies.

Democratic politics should stand for elementary security at times of stormy transformations. We live in a period of fundamental changes that are taking place in parallel and at high speed. The mass immigration of people from other continents, the demographic change, the relocation of political decisions to the supranational institutions… all this adds up to a great strain on our societies – especially for those who feel powerless in the face of these changes. A feeling of loss of control has played a great role both in the Brexit-campaign and the election victory of Trump.

The democratic forces cannot promise to shield our societies against the great changes of our times. But we have to take preventive measures, in order to make sure that major parts of our societies don’t feel they are being left unprotected. For that we need social protection that is not affected by crises, as well as empowerment of people through education, to enable them to deal self-consciously with the social and economic transformations.

In this situation, one can make two mistakes: on the one hand, one can try to catch up with populists, by taking over their messages; and on the other hand, by stubbornly ignoring the origins of this protest mood. This also applies to the refugee policies: one cannot declare that the question of how many people should be accepted into the country cannot be decided upon in a democratic manner – as if international humanitarian law had no place for political leadership. A politics of open borders is just as unrealistic as a politics of isolation. The mass immigration of foreigners touches on the core question: which way are we, as a society, planning to go? And what do we trust ourselves to achieve? We have to confront these questions.

What are the implications of the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin last December? What does it mean to progressive, left-wing, liberal, and Green forces in Germany?

The most important takeaway of the attack in Berlin is that we cannot let the Right define the issue of national security. Even the supporters of a liberal refugee and immigration policy have to deal with the questions of how to deal with multiple offenders and violent Islamists. Seeing Muslim refugees in general as a threat is just as bad as having a laissez-faire mentality towards those people who might indeed pose a threat to public security. Those who want to protect the right to asylum have to stand up against those who abuse it.

What role can a political foundation, such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation, play in order to start a public debate about these issues and limit the impact of antidemocratic forces, such as the AfD?

We have a limited scope to convince the hardcore supporters of the AfD. These people have, in general, a closed worldview, which cannot be shaken through arguments. We have to try to reach mainly those who disagree with the state of things, without embracing antidemocratic or racist positions.

At times of great discomfort and uncertainty, the foundation has to be a place where serious political debates can take place – a forum where many different voices can be heard, and a place where we can envision a better future, and where we can work on political alternatives. The Böll Foundation is an international network, at a time in which we have to work on a democratic international – a coalition of democratic forces across all of Europe, and even beyond.

How do you see your years as President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation?

These were 20 stormy and successful years. In 1996 we started with a handful of people to completely restructure the foundation. Since then, we have become an international centre for ecology and human rights. We run 33 offices, all over the globe, with an extensive network of partners. In parallel, we have increased our social reach: today, we work with a wide range of organisations, from Attac to business associations. And we are also one of the most interesting venues for political debates.

This is a success story.

However, we ended up in numerous countries in a defensive position. And many of those values and democratic achievements that we saw as almost self-evident in the great wave of democratisation starting in 1989/90, are called into question today. We are again in a situation in which we must fight, even in Europe, for democratic principles.

Nevertheless, I am confident that Brexit, Trump, and even Aleppo were not the last word. The backlashes of the last year are signals that we need to fight even harder for our values. I still believe in the power of a liberal democracy, and in the chances of a Green industrial revolution. We need an idea of progress, a positive narrative that we can use against the growing fear and pessimism. The foundation will remain an important venue to make this happen.

“A coalition is not a love match” – Interview with Ralf Fücks