The Bright Light of Leitkultur
When democratic elections role around, they not only give countries a chance to select their leaders, but they are also an opportunity to define the ideals the majority of the population wish to follow through a governments term in office. The arguments of politicians target a domestic audience and look to tap into what voters feel to be the defining issues of an election campaign. Increasingly, elections have not only attempted to define what is legislatively important, but certainly in the last twelve months, have attempted to define what a country stands for on the global stage. The Brexit Referendum and the US Elections in 2016 were not just a local discussion of what is best for their respective nations domestically, but they were in many ways a declaration to the world of what these countries stand for. Both Brexit and Trump’s election had a direct impact on policies, but also global perceptions.
This year has seen two major European elections in the Netherlands and in France, with both focusing on what image their countries will project to the world. Outside observers defined both these elections as a historic fight against the rising tide of populism and the right wing that the success of Brexit and Trump seemed to herald. In turn, the victories of Mark Rutte and the VVD in the Netherlands and the independent candidate Emmanuel Macron in France have been celebrated as a victory of liberal sense over the radical right-wing. Despite some misgivings over both candidates, it would be hard to argue that European and Global politics would be a safer place had Geert Wilders or Marine le Pen taken power.
The victories of Rutte and Macron have been celebrated as the victory of liberal ideals, intertwined with ideas of openness and the four freedoms of the European Union. No doubt there are many supporters of the EU breathing easier following yesterdays result in the French election. While having dinner with friends yesterday there was a pause in the conversation as we all checked our phones to find out whether Macron, as had been predicted, was the new President of France. Once confirmed, there was collective sigh of relief. However, the relief is tempered by some truths that must be recognised, namely that Geert Wilders’ PVV is still the second largest in the Netherlands and Marine le Pen and her National Front party received more votes than any other time in their history. This is victory, but not total victory.
Meanwhile, Germany and the UK still have to go to the polls, and in turn tell the world who they really are. The political debate in the UK is stunted by the seemingly indomitable right wing press, a government that seems low on substance, but high on repetitive sound bites and an opposition that is either proposing radical change or is promoting ineffectual and weak leadership, depending on what you read.
Germany’s election is still some months away, but the discussion of the core values or what it actually means to be German has become a central topic following the intervention of Bundesminister des Innern (Minister of the Interior) Thomas de Maizière. Writing last week in Bild am Sonntag, de Maizière produced a ten point definition of the central values of Germany, that encompassed everything from culture and history, to handshakes and the wearing of the Burka.
The ten points, de Maizière claimed, were an attempt to spark a debate within Germany on what can be considered the Leitkultur or guiding/ leading culture in Germany. The question of Leitkultur is a political minefield, given that the term has been used in the past by right wing politicians and has more than a hint of enforced “Germanisation”. The fact that de Maizière was writing this in an election year and within the pages of Bild am Sonntag, a paper that is often accused of right wing bias, smacked of an attempt to draw Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) voters to Angela Merkel’s senior coalition partners, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
de Maizière, to some extent, walked a careful path. Education, culture, history, Europe and the importance collective memory targeted liberals. However, the importance of hard work, particular behaviours such as shaking hands, not covering the face and Christian values appealed to those right-wing voters who believe the country has been negatively impacted by Muslim migration and a lack of integration. The reaction to the article ranged from support to condemnation. Speaking to friends over the weekend, there was a mixed opinion; some believed it was important to define what German values were and that it might even benefit migrants to have a clear outline of what Germany stood for. Others complained that it was outright populism, unworthy of the CDU. One person I spoke to, a teacher, said she supported many of the points, but that criticising wearing the Burka (point 1 on the list) was blatant populism. What was more, she continued, the phrase “Wir sind nicht Burka.” (Directly translated: We are not Burka) was grammatically unforgivable. Perhaps de Maizière may consider adding another point to the list: German grammar is not the plaything of politicians.
One argument in support of the ten points of Leitkultur, which I must admit I was partially swayed by, was that if de Maizière’s intention was to define German culture in a way that could be supported by the right and the left and thus produce a unified idea, then he had achieved that goal. I understand this perspective, it appeals to my belief that compromise is an important part of politics and life. We all have different opinions and that in times of political strife, is it not better to find the points we can all agree on, and in turn unify against common threats, than to bicker about the smallest of details? The newly minted President Macron was elected on the back of support from all sides, with his backers arguing that when the other option is Front National and Marine Le Pen, there really was no option. On that I can agree.
However, what I find hard to reconcile is the centre right appealing to the base instincts of the far right in the hopes peeling away supporters. The consequences of this strategy can be seen in the Conservative government of the UK. Under threat from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) the Tories agreed to have a referendum on Europe that outflanked UKIP and, among many other factors, won the election of 2015 with a clear majority. One divisive referendum later, the Tory leadership changed and under Theresa May, the Tories have lurched further and further to the right with every passing day, to the point that UKIP’s former leader was praising the Prime Minsters words as his own. Politically it has paid dividends with UKIP support collapsing in the UK local elections last week. Although the UK general election still has a long way to go, the Tories appear to be the only show in town, by fostering the worst aspects of the right they may have won, but at what cost?
To say that cultures do not clash would be a lie, if anything this blog is a litany of all the cultural hiccups and observations that I have experienced. There is to some extent a common European culture, just as there is a common German culture, but we must be careful of who defines it and how we use it. We frequently define ourselves by what we are not, in opposition to those things and peoples we might consider to be “the other”, but we must also appreciate that cultures can and do change when exposed to difference. Culture is not a static commodity in any country, especially those of Europe, if it were we would have no currywurst in Germany or vindaloo and in the UK. There is nothing wrong with claiming common values, but it is a discussion that has to include everyone, not just those who shout the loudest.