The Pan European recently caught up with Daniel Roeder, a lawyer by trade and co-founder of the Pulse of Europe (PoE), a grassroots initiative started in Germany that aims to promote the European Union at a local level. From Albania to Sweden, the PoE has held rallies across the continent to speak out in favour of the European project.
As you might have heard, coalition talks to form a new German government have so far been unsuccessful. Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was not able to reach an agreement with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party over the refugee crisis and the environment. Daniel told us what the ramifications could be for Germany and Europe.
So, the liberal FDP recently pulled out of coalition talks in Germany. Were you surprised?
Absolutely, what happened was totally unexpected. We still don’t know the exact reasons: progress was made in certain areas, and I haven’t heard anything specific – just very broad, abstract phrases like ‘we were on the wrong path’. It remains to be seen what the real reason was.
What’s next for Merkel?
Well, it’s difficult to guess…there are two options. Either new elections, or she will try a minority government, which is a difficult thing and is probably very unstable. Maybe the Social democrats will change their minds…the situation is new: the parties need to accept their responsibilities, because I don’t think new elections will bring new results.
Which outcome is more likely?
It’s impossible to say right now, but the situation for Merkel is even more difficult than before.
What is the current mood on the ground?
People are shocked and surprised. No one knows why the talks failed – if there had been one topic during negotiations that the Liberals had said, ‘that’s a no-go topic for us and we won’t deal with it,’ it would have been understandable why they walked away. But they had made progress over the last two days – politicians were tweeting that progress had been made, and then the next day it was the opposite.
If a snap election is called, do you think the far-right AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) will gain an even bigger share of the vote?
Possibly. The CDU haven’t managed to form a government, so obviously that could provide potential support to the AfD. Similarly, if a snap election is called, the FDP may lose votes because they are apparently the ones to blame. However, I expect that the outcome would be similar, maybe a little shift here and there, but I doubt any party would gain significantly more votes than they had in September.
AfD voters are quite heterogeneous: they are not one-of-a-kind. There’s a certain percentage of former CDU voters who wanted to show their party that they are dissatisfied with the policies of the last few years, particularly in regards to the refugee crisis…the Christian Democrats haven’t done enough, simply.
This is why I believe that the parties must try and form a government now: they have to deal with the outcome of the elections. It’s a duty, in my opinion.
Do you feel that the parties have an obligation to making this coalition work?
Yes. To a certain extent I can understand the SPD reaction right after the elections, but there are two ways of looking at the results. Voters expressed that the Grand Coalition should not continue, but on the other hand they [the SPD] gained roughly 20% of the vote: they’re the second strongest party in parliament.
‘I think we’ve all underestimated the psychological effect of being in a communist system for over 40 years.’
All parties want to avoid losing voters, I understand that, but there’s something above party interests…a duty to the people, and that goes for any party. It’s a difficult situation for Germany and Europe.
Many of AfD’s voters come from East Germany. Why is that, and how can the government reconnect with those people?
It’s a very difficult question… it’s not only Eastern Germany, it’s a phenomenon that has in different degrees spread all over the country, but the AfD is particularly strong in East Germany. I think we’ve all underestimated the psychological effect of being in a communist system for over 40 years. This is true not only for Eastern Germany but the whole of Eastern Europe. If you look at Poland or Hungary or other countries where populists and nationalists are regaining power, I think that they are looking for their Polish, Czech, Hungarian, etc. identity. Many countries were elated after the Iron Curtain fell, and they then tried to connect with the European Union, but perhaps it was too fast. I think it was still the right decision, but in a way they are still suffering from that experience…they seem to find an answer in nationalism.
What can the government in Germany and the EU do?
Well, they must re-engage with people, and listen more carefully to the problems that they are raising. A large part of this is addressing globalisation: people are overwhelmed by it, and a natural reaction is to withdraw to a smaller unit – the village, the neighbourhood, the nation. Germany and the EU need to provide solutions for creating a world in which globalisation doesn’t leave people feeling lost.
Obviously, Germany is not alone, and this ties into a larger movement of populism sweeping across Europe. Can grassroots organisations such as the Pulse of Europe tackle this?
I hope so, yes. When we started off at the end of last year, the mood was quite dark. Everybody thought that there was no real answer to Brexit, to Trump. But we proved that there are thousands of people who believe in a united Europe, in democracy and the rule of law. The problem now is that many people thought ‘job done’ after the French elections. Yet for me it’s now an even more critical situation – we need to create a new future and there needs to be a quick response to Macron’s suggestions.
I’m not saying Germany or other European countries should exclaim, ‘oh great, Macron, we agree to your catalogue of 40 plus topics.’ No!
The only thing he is saying is, ‘let’s have a serious discussion about Europe,’ yet so far there has been no response. That’s part of the problem with the coalition talks in Germany. There needs to be a quick response, otherwise Macron will have an internal problem in a couple of years.
Do you feel Macron is a lone figure in Europe?
Yes, that’s the problem. He has very much linked his personal success with the European project. Macron knows that he has to undergo a lot of social reforms within France, which is a difficult task. Certainly, he needs success within Europe – but obviously that requires assistance.
The Franco-German relationship is often seen as the heart of Europe. What effect do you think Macron has had on this relationship so far?
I think it’s been quite positive. The perception in Germany is also quite positive. But there are also some voices who raise doubts: the traditional German narrative is that we don’t want to pay for France. But that twists the story around…no one is saying we have to pay them, and if we want to improve and protect the European project, we need to invest money.
This narrative doesn’t consider the counterpoint: what would Germany have to pay if the European Union fails?
What’s on the agenda for the Pulse of Europe in 2018?
Many things. We still believe that Brexit can be avoided, but there needs to be some kind of push from the UK. We would love to interlink with the anti-Brexit movements, but they need to take the first step.
‘We still believe that Brexit can be avoided…’
We are focusing also on Eastern Europe and civilian movements. Macron has said that there should be a civilian participation project in renewing Europe. We’ve made contact with him over that and have asked what exactly is his vision for the project. Maybe we will join in, provided we remain independent.
We also want to help other civilian movements in Eastern Europe to fight for democracy because it’s a serious situation there. I know from our people in Poland and Prague that it is already difficult to assemble demonstrations – freedom of speech is at stake, and that is obviously fundamental for democracy.
Also on the 6th May there will be a Pulse of Europe day in Frankfurt… the City granted us the Paulskirche, which is an honour. We will try to create a huge demonstration for all things Europe, and possibly issue a manifesto.
We will send a message to all European politicians that the European project is moving forward, through the people.