Interview: Daniel Roeder on the future of Germany and Europe

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.

Daniel Röder at a rally in Frankfurt, Germany.

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.

A Pulse of Europe rally in Cologne, Germany.

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.

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Max Caskie

Interview: What does French media treatment of Pulse of Europe show?

Ever seen those photos of the massive pro-Europe demonstrations in Germany?

Pulse of Europe French media
The Pulse of Europe movement campaigns for a ‘strong, functioning European Union.’

Then you’ve already been acquainted with Pulse of Europe.

Launched in Frankfurt in 2016, the movement campaigns for a pan-European identity and ‘a strong, functioning European Union,’ but endorses no particular politician or party.

In Germany, the movement has quickly become immensely popular, with tens of thousands of people mobilising to show their support for the European project.

Pulse of Europe recently launched in France, yet the reception seems to have been rather tepid.

Is that because the French are actually more sceptical of Europe than the polls would suggest? Or are the press just reluctant to appear overtly pro-European Union?

We spoke to Aurélien Condomines, head of the French brance of Pulse of Europe, to find out.

TPE Do the French and German press treat the respective Pulse of Europe movements differently?

AC The German media has been very obliging, but the same cannot be said for the French press. In both countries, media organisations adopt a position they believe will resonate with their readers.

I emphasise the word ‘believe,’ though, because they aren’t necessarily right: most journalists haven’t really understood the political changes in France over the past two years.

“French journalists tell us: ‘the French don’t want to hear about Europe, so we don’t talk about it.”

TPE How so?

AC Just look at the papers – no one thought Emmanuel Macron was going to win the election. There is a troubling lack of understanding in the media bubble. Most journalists talk about what they think people want to hear. They are part of a global phenomenon of cronyism.

French President Emmanuel Macron Pulse of Europe French media
French President Emmanuel Macron

In Germany, journalists detected the fears many Germans had about the future of Europe, first with the Dutch, then with the French elections.

Whereas French journalists tell us: ‘the French don’t want to hear about Europe, so we don’t talk about it.’

It’s the opposite of what Macron’s En Marche! movement did throughout the [presidential] campaign. Macron was clearly pro-European – he flew just as many EU flags as French ones, despite the received wisdom at the time.

His victory proved him right.

“Most journalists haven’t really understood the political changes in France over the past two years.”


TPE
Is it fair to say that you are pro-Macron?

AC No, it’s not that we are ‘pro-Macron.’ He is pro-Europe and so are we.

TPE Who would have been PoE’s preferred candidate in the recent Presidential election?

AC In the first round of voting, we refused to endorse any particular candidate, we said “there are several pro-Europeans, choose between them.”

In the second round, there was one anti and one pro-European, so we favoured the latter.

Pulse of Europe has members from the left, the right, and the centre. During the election, we saw from their Facebook profiles that they supported François Fillon (right), Emmanuel Macron (centre) and Benoît Hamon (left)

And, of course, we received angry messages from Jean-Luc Mélenchon (far left) and Marine le Pen (extreme right) voters. We found those from the far left to be the most abusive.

“In France we have a terrible tendency to not talk about what we don’t understand.”

TPE Do you believe that most French people are pro-Europe?

AC The polls show clearly that they are.

There are fluctuations – approval ratings have shot up over the past few months, having slumped for a while previously – but these are natural.

People adapt to the narrative of the moment, opinion is fluid, but the population is mostly pro-European.

Paradoxically, before May or June of this year, there was the feeling in France that that wasn’t the case.

There was a sort of anxiety triggered by the Parisian media elite, who decided that people didn’t want to hear anything pro-European.

The opposite happened in Germany.

pulse of europe french media
Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for German Chancellorship, with Angela Merkel

TPE And in the event that they do mention the EU, do you feel it is treated even-handedly?

AC There is a distinct lack of understanding of what the EU does and how it works.

In France we have a terrible tendency to not talk about what we don’t understand.

If media executives felt their audiences were unequivocally pro-European, they would take the time to learn about the EU. But they are still convinced people aren’t interested.

With the election of Emmanuel Macron, that may all change. Bizarrely, the press, like many French politicians, follows opinion, rather than shaping it.

If Macron’s plan to relaunch the European project in the coming months takes off, the media will follow his lead.

TPE Is there another reason – aside from the idea that they don’t think the French audience is interested in Europe – like a feeling that the EU is too neoliberal, for example?

AC That explains the attitude of certain journalists, the militant anti-Europeans, but there are relatively few of them.

TPE Can you give us some examples of the press treatment of Pulse of Europe?

AC We don’t really receive negative treatment anymore, except online, where rumours did the rounds about Pulse of Europe’s supposed dodgy financers – George Soros and the like. They were complete rubbish.

95% of the treatment we receive is positive. The problem is that we don’t get coverage.
Between February and March, up to 60 pro-France demonstrations of upwards of 30,000 people took place all over Germany.

They waved French flags and chanted ‘we love France’ – now that’s not exactly uninteresting!

The Tagesschau, the German equivalent of 20 minutes [a free daily paper] had a story, but in France, nothing.

You would have thought that they would have dedicated at least a minute of the 20 minutes to the tens of thousands of pro-France demonstrators mobilising across Germany.

Nope, diddlysquat.

But they’ll spend 5 minutes on the “fête du cochon” [a traditional festival involving the killing and eating of pigs that has become politically significant for far-right groups. Many now see it as anti-Islam]. It’s absurd.

What has really made a difference in Germany has been TV. We’ve had some press, some radio, but barely any TV coverage.

TV reaches millions of people, 60% of whom are pro-European. If they saw on the news that PoE had meetings all over the country, they’d join us.

Coverage in the written press is only ever going to reach a limited elite.

Here’s another example. In Cologne recently, 2,000 people met in the main square to form a giant French flag – even just visually, it was interesting – but it wasn’t mentioned.

Equally bizarre is the fact that we’ve had plenty of foreign press coverage. Germany’s second biggest TV channel, ZDF, spent two days filming a full-length report on the movement, for example.

Another time, 500 of us took part in a flashmob outside the Palais Royal and Radio France International did a show for its website.

But when they sent us the video, everything was in Chinese! Radio France thought our movement would get more play in the Chinese market than in France.

And this was in March of this year; the EU was one of the major sticking points between Macron and Le Pen in the forthcoming election.

Plenty of people thought Le Pen was going to win, saying that the French no longer wanted the euro etc.

Even then, journalists told us the French weren’t interested in hearing about Europe. They are worried that if they talk about it too much, audiences will feel they are ramming the EU down their throats.

The difference between the coverage in France and Germany is a reflection of the media’s perception of what interests people, not of the amount of people who are for or against the EU.

“Coverage in the written press is only ever going to reach a limited elite.”

TPE What’s next for PoE?

AC The movement is beginning to concentrate on different issues. For example, we are currently doing lots of work in Poland.

Pulse of Europe French Media
The relationship between the EU and Poland has been getting steadily worse since the election of the Law and Justice party.

Look at the polls, the majority of Polish people are pro-European, but the quasi-dictatorship there is threatening basic European values. We are helping out in Warsaw and on the ground elsewhere by supporting pro-Democracy movements.

In mid-July, Pulse of Europe demonstrators in 18 cities across nine countries protested in front of the Polish embassies to show support for Polish democracy.

We haven’t got the means to finance anything but we plan to organise more events and concerts, and we are organising a European marathon.

We want to do everything possible to promote Europe.