The Policy Centre that Berlin has Become

One of the delightful and impressive surprises of life back in Berlin has been the extent to which Berlin has become important to Europe and the world politically. There are many manifestations of that importance in buildings that house government and the various organizations around it, but also the number of special interest representatives etc. that now populate Berlin debates. Among these many institutions are also academic research institutions and think tanks.

One of these institutions is the Hertie School of Governance, a still-new private institutions in Berlin with which we’re linked from UBC’s Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Wow, did they put on an event!

Yes, that’s right. One of the most well-known political philosophers of our era, the current German foreign minister and an independent French presidential candidate in the middle of his campaign debate the future of Europe!

Now, that’s what many people have in mind when they think about a policy school, and that is only possible in a place like Berlin (as I regretfully acknowledge with an eye toward the creation of a policy school at UBC and my (as of yet unclear) involvement in that).

Not surprisingly, the event was packed. I had noticed an announcement minutes after it appeared on Twitter and had signed up. I thus managed to register and attend.

There must have been dozens of journalists, TV, photo, print, there. See this photo from the event as an example.

I managed to grab a “seat” on the window sill, but ended up wedged between two other listeners. Mercifully, the politicians’ schedule was so constrained that the event didn’t last that long, so the funny window-sill squat was perfectly okay.

A Living Academic Giant

Habermas? I had met him once in the 1990s in grad school. He is now 88, but does not miss a step. His opening remarks completely shifted the debate on the future of Europe that was planned for the event. Perhaps he has been speaking and writing about this elsewhere, but I hadn’t noticed. He re-cast the questions of Europe’s future around distributive justice across national borders. To re-invigorate, solidify, pick your word of choice the EU (and Europe largely meant the EU for this discussion) Europe, distributive justice must be discussed.

That does address some of the globalization fears that seem to be at the root of some of the popularity of European rightist populists. I happen to think that discussions about a guaranteed minimum income are urgent and could be conducted in a European context. If there’s any chance for a European GMI, that would be a huge boost to the perception of the EU of course. Months ago with rightists in charge in Poland and Hungary, seemingly perched to take over in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, and maybe even threatening in Germany, such a debate seemed unthinkable, but perhaps it would be important to have such discussions.

Beyond this re-framing of the debate, Habermas surprised the audience by referring to Sigmar Gabriel as a “phoenix risen from the ashes”, hinting at the recent change in the leadership of the Social Democrats where Gabriel relinquished the party chair and also his candidacy for chancellor to the very popular Martin Schulz but then replaced Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister as Steinmeier has become federal president. Given that Gabriel had to bury his ambitions in the name of electoral opportunity for the Social Democrats, this seemed like a somewhat indelicate poke. Yet, when moderator Henrik Enderlein repeated the tease, Gabriel replied, “You should see the emails he [Habermas] sends me.”

Can you imagine that email exchange? Does Jürgen Habermas use emojis? Is there a wagging-finger-emoji?

Politicians and Political Language

I thought it was very interesting to listen to Emmanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel as examples of politicians, but also as representatives of the political style of different countries and/or languages.

My overwhelming impression was that with less than six weeks left before the first round of the French presidential election (and Macron’s chances to make it to the second round to face yet another rightist populist seeming good), Macron seemed to be speaking much less in a campaign mode than Gabriel who is still six months away from the Bundestagswahl. Odd.

Macron was a delight to listen to. There was the substance on the one hand: A full-throated endorsement of the EU? Even convinced and dyed-in-the-wool Europeanists like Angela Merkel would not come out and openly declare their love for the EU. Macron did and he does so regularly.

He thus captures some of the feelings of a generation that has grown up with Europe and happily so. He is seven years younger than me and we have grown up in a blissfully peaceful time of not only a Franco-German alliance but a supranational Europe that has deservedly been awarded the Novel Peace Prize for ending centuries and decades of European wars. Erasmus and the various other mobility programs for students are wonderful, as is the opportunity to move around for work across the EU. We are all culturally enriched by European diversity that is made much more tangible through European institutions like the Erasmus Program.

In style, Macron is also an interesting contrast to German (and Canadian) political debates. As I thought more about his contributions to the debate and also discussed this with ABA (who is one of the most engaged readers of this blog and urged this post), he represents a national political style more than his own personality, I think. He speaks very much in the style of French political talk shows and for an academic, they are a joy. Such talk shows are often heated, but they involve intellectuals and these intellectuals seem to determine the tone more than the campaign slogans and necessary simplifications of politicians. While German talk shows seem to involve partisan posturing, French talks shows often lead to intellectual posturing. I like that. In Canada, talk shows with a relatively unscripted, flowing, often heated exchange, don’t seem to really exist, even under the Liberals.

So, when Macron spoke about a Franco-German alliance within the EU around the topics of investment and security, this seemed meaningful. When Gabriel spoke about the need to recast the stories about Europe, that seemed like empty and ineffective polk-speak.

Sure, discussions about the EU should be reframed to focus more on positive accomplishments. But is that, i.e. let’s talk about good things, really a response that addressed populists’ diatribes against EU bureaucracy, supposed lost of sovereignty, and the fears of those listening to populists? I really don’t think so!

For a recording of the debate, see the Hertie School website.


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