Berlin, Brandenburg and Brussels. A South Asian delegation of five Pakistanis, two Indians, two Sri Lankans and one Bangladeshi on a study trip on Federalism:
“It’s complicated!” This is the vast experience of a hands-on man. The Mayor of a small town adjacent to Berlin, Dr. Hans Günther Oberlack, summarises the structures of a federal German: “Again it’s complicated.” In order to balance interests and to institutionalise compromises the three tiers of federalism are strongly interwoven. A delegation of South Asian politicians, academia and journalists had a close look on this net of shared responsibilities plus checks and balances – from all perspectives: national/federal, provincial/state, and community/municipality. That’s what brought them finally to the suburb Glienicke/Nordbahn and to Mayor Oberlack.
And here all the theoretical input and previous appointments made sense and became concrete: The delegation had talked to the National Parliament (Bundestag) as well as to the Federal Council (Bundesrat), where delegates represent the interests of the states (Länder). As laws have to pass both chambers there is a Mediation Committee (between Assembly and Federal Council) where the compromises have to be fought for. The South Asians got first-hand experience from there, too: “Politics is mainly about money,” resumes the liberal politician Otto Fricke, Member of Parliament and of the Mediation Committee, i.e. balancing interests and resources between the federal and state-level.
Listening to every tier the delegation of five Pakistanis, two Indians, two Sri Lankans and one Bangladeshi heard almost everywhere the same song: “We do not get enough!” This applies also for the State Parliament of Brandenburg or the German County Association. There is never enough and the art is to find the right compromise – institutionalised in a complicated constitution. This gets even more challenging because Germany’s Basic Laws grants equal living conditions throughout all parts of its country.
But Germany’s federal system does not end with three tiers and there is even one level more to share resources with: the European Union. Visiting Brussels and the European Parliament the group could learn about decision-making and resource-sharing among the 27 member states from inside. Especially, in times of a Euro-crisis sharing responsibility turns into a real challenge – taking into account all the emotional luggage from a difficult history. Now, former enemies are fighting with words around a table – often enough with different concepts of a United Europe and culturally much more diverse than for example South Asia. How to split and slice responsibility and decision-making?
Perhaps, this can help: One core aspect of German federalism is the principle of subsidiarity. That means all decisions are taken on the lowest level possible. This turns into quick, cheap and most suitable solutions. But therefore, resources have to come with responsibility. And here again: “It’s complicated.” Mayor Oberlack also enlightened the South Asian delegation, why they were here with a good sense of humour: “The Germans are complicated. And their system is complicated. So, we make it complicated and we try out everything. Then others know what doesn’t work and don’t have to repeat it.”
However, quick fixes do not reflect reality. The art of involving everyone and finding the right compromise works in the long run: almost 70 years of a peaceful and prosperous Germany and Europe! That’s worth finding compromises in a complicated way.
by Olaf Kellerhoff, Resident Representative