“EU parliament campaign posts are still centred on lifestyle “Peace”“security” “cohesion” the slogans”
By Laura Muncie
The bus shudders to a halt at every lamp post before reaching our destination- a charming art house cinema that plays classic celluloid movies such as Bellissima.
The receptionist scans the guest list for my name. His eyes brighten when I say Orkney News “Schottische Zeitung” (Scottish Newspaper). The invite to attend a political meeting hosted by German party SPD (social democratic party) was too intriguing to turn down. What happens at these meetings?
Tapas on the tables, wine pouring, the room is soon busy and friendly. Felix Schwenke, the Mayor and figurehead of the SPD in the city arrives. Energetic, with a young family, he works the room shaking hands and smiling broadly. Oliver Stirböck of the Freie Demokratische Partei , the centre right liberal party is greeting people. Helge Herget of the curiously named Piraten Partei ( Pirate Party) also attends. The Pirate Party are advocates of improved digitalisation and internet freedom.
The foundations of the centre left SDP are with the working class, but glancing around the room, the working class isn’t here. Dr Felix Schwenke is as crisp and shiny as newly minted coin. The people supporting him, more recognisable as something like Labour in the Blair era.
Nancy Faeser, General Secretary of the SPD in the state of Hessen, passionately talks about topics also present in Scottish politics: improved childcare in the early years, reduced plastic usage, and making big companies like Amazon and Google pay.
“The baker on the corner of the street has to pay tax but Google and Amazon isn’t paying their share. I find that unfair “she says.
An elderly man with a sun worn face hugs a younger man who looks like him only sanded down. The young man asks if anyone has questions for the next speaker- SPD’s EU candidate. I hand over my four questions- two about the EU election, two about Brexit. The Brexit questions aren’t asked by the interviewer. Brexit isn’t of interest to people in this room- why would it be?
Initially the referendum result was a shock, now it’s a baffling joke. The realisation that Great Britain, soft power of Europe, bridge between multi lingual Europe and the English speaking world, could be so ill prepared, has people in Germany shaking their heads and calling the whole affair “so so sad”.
In the political circles Brexit is viewed as an internal problem. The British must fix themselves first, before taking on an entire continent demanding change.
The feeling here is the British politicians need to interpret what the British public want. That’s if the British public know what they want. Meanwhile the message from EU Heads of State is ‘we are here to help’.
The interviewer asks my question.
“What does the SPD party intend to do differently to stem the wave of populism?”
The answer is interesting. Delara Burkhard wants to do more to end inequality between EU member countries and within Germany. Ms Burhard also wants to see more support at borders between EU member countries and non EU member countries. 80% of the voting public in Germany vote for pro EU parties the candidate reminds the audience.
As the speaker talks, it strikes me the different way in which the EU is presented to the German public.The difference between Germany and UK presentation of the EU can be boiled down to trade v lifestyle. In Germany the EU is presented as a peace and freedom project. In the UK it is presented as a trade opportunity.
Trade deals and the EU isn’t a big part of the public conversation in Germany because the unspoken understanding is countries would trade with each other EU or not.
French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel recently signed a declaration cementing their partnership. The EU frameworks just make the trade part easier. Trade is not the obsession that it is in Britain.
But UK understanding of the EU seems to hang on trading partnerships. Support for the EU or not dependent on whether the EU is seen to be delivering for the UK economy and how democratic or not it is.
Maybe this perspective goes some way to explain why economic pressures on UK households delivered an EU backlash. Where was the UK return on EU investment?
Governed by a Conservative Chancellor, voters in Germany don’t appear to buy into the ‘EU is about trade’ perspective. But grievances are stirring in the undergrowth. The startling boost in support for the AfD, the German equivalent of UKIP, has unsettled the political classes and some of the public. Despite this, EU parliament campaign posts are still centred on lifestyle “Peace”“security” “cohesion” the slogans.
‘Europe festivals’have also been going on. Street events with citizen led food stalls and free children’s books about the EU. For now flyers for these events include the Union Jack.
In the cinema the meeting draws to a close, people are chatting over ice cream and saying goodbye.
It’s all very cordial, a world away from the shrill polarised angry world of British politics, that’s left the UK public disillusioned and properly fed up.
But there’s a world outside the harsh political discussion in Britain. Do the British public even realise 27 other countries are heading to the polls shortly? Will the Brits turn up?