European Student Thinktank Interview with Anna Lührmann Ph.D. Between 2002 and 2009, Lührmann was the youngest MP in the German parliament, where she represented the Green party. She has since worked as the Deputy Director of the Varieties of Democracy, and as an associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and UNDP.
Interview by Joseph Slattery, EST Ambassador for Prague
Photo – https://anna-luehrmann.de/presse/
J: You are affiliated with the German Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen). The Green Party has steadily risen in the polls over the last 20 years, and we will likely be seeing them soon in a coalition in Germany, after the latest election. Why do you think the Green Party has been so successful in Germany, especially in comparison to other environmental parties in Europe?
A: I think there are two reasons for this; first the Green Party in Germany has been very good at showing that it wants to represent everyone in society. It has an agenda for climate protection, for environmental protection, but also for the economy, for social justice, and basically any issue you can think about. I think voters know that by now, and don’t view us only as a single-issue party. And secondly, our leadership over the last years, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck are very popular in Germany, and really manage to promote an idea of a party that wants to improve things for many people. What has really helped us is the environmental movement, now mainly with Fridays for Future and all these protests and debates in all parts of society. They have really put the issue we stand most for as number one on the agenda.
J: What are your thoughts on the recent German coalition talks, and the outline that the three parties have submitted to the press?
A: I think that it’s a good start. As always in these coalition negotiations, it’s not a replica of any party’s programme, it is compromises. But also, there are some new ideas that are common ground, that are not just the smallest denominator, but something more. We need to modernise German administration and digitalise much more. In terms of digital issues, Germany is a bit behind. I also lived in Sweden until recently, and Sweden is really light ages ahead of us in this issue. So, this is one of the priorities that the coalition partners agreed on. Also, in terms of climate protection, we already achieved some points that are very important, including existing from burning coal, in 2030 already, and combustion engines and all that earlier. So, I think it’s a good start. The details will now show whether this coalition is viable.
J: Further on that Topic; You mentioned transitioning away from coal power. I noticed in the preliminary coalition paper that it was written ‘ideally’ by 2030. There is a lack of precision that was present in every other point. Why do you think that is? Pragmatism, realism, or perhaps an influence of the other parties?
A: Yeah. That’s mainly the influence of the SPD, who were very sceptical about exiting from coal. This sentence Is supposed to make clear that this exit from coal will happen if there is enough energy from renewable sources built up by then. So that is the conditioning sentence. We will do everything it takes to build up this renewable energy. Once we’ve achieved that, we can make sure we exit from coal in 2030. And you can rest assured that the Green Party will make sure now, in the detailed negotiations, that this is spelled out, and then, when we govern, that the necessary steps are taken.
J- Further on that point – could you talk about some red lines that you feel the Green Party should stick to in the coalition talks?
A: For us it’s very clear, we can only enter into a government that puts Germany on the way towards climate neutrality and towards achieving the goals of the Paris agreement. That is very clear. And we really need ambitious climate protection issues in all parts of the government.
J: There has been some criticism of the coalition proposal paper so far. There was a quote saying that some people felt the paper had been written in yellow, implying that the FDP has had a larger influence than the other parties. How would you respond to that criticism?
A: I think all parties have their issues included in this agreement. There are some key issues for us there, like the transitioning away from coal, also that we have a minimum wage of 12 euros. The liberal party also got some points, obviously, and for the liberal party the step towards entering this traffic light coalition is a bit further than for the Green Party. There needed to be several bridges for the liberals to cross to build up new trust for them to enter this coalition agreement. I’m quite confident that it will be balanced for all parties, and also that it will reflect that the Green Party came in ahead of the liberals [in the election].
J: In 2017 you co-authored an article on democratic backsliding. You disagreed with the statement that democracy worldwide is in crisis. After the pandemic, where, according to the global democracy index, Europe has lost two full democracies, and more of the world than ever is living under authoritarian leadership, would you still agree with your statement that there is a global crisis for democracy?
A: I publish every year on the global state of democracy, and every year my take on the state of global democracy has become more pessimistic and more negative, because a lot of the developments were in a negative direction. In 2017, we wouldn’t have imagined that we would have a sitting US president that doubts the election results in his own country, where the elections were conducted in a free and fair way. A lot of things have happened in the last few years that have indeed deepened what I call ‘a wave of autocratisation’. But I don’t think that this is the end of democracy because we see many examples of resilience. The last article I published was on the resilience of democracies in Europe. A lot of democracies have shown remarkable resilience. Even in Hungary now, we have an opposition coalition that seriously challenges Orban. So, there are signs of resilience in countries, and I am quite confident that in the end, democracy as an idea will prevail.
J: You spoke recently at the Forum 2000. The forum focused on building back more democratically after covid 19. How do you think world leaders can convince voters that democracy is the only option?
A: First of all, in many countries, voters convince leaders. When we wrote about the resilience of democracies, it mainly came from voters and from protest movements. We saw a big spike in pro-democratic protests over the last years, many before the pandemic and also during. That’s number 1. And number 2, globally we need to focus on democracy rather than just elections. It entails a free press, freedom of association. We cannot speak of a democracy when opposition leaders are in jail. So, this is very clear. We at a certain point need to innovate democracy and find ways that people can participate better in democratic proceedings.
J- At the forum, there was a lot of discussion of China and Russia’s roles in the world as authoritarian states, and a lot of discussion about whether democracies could, or should, counteract their presence on the world stage, to promote democracy. What do you think the priority for the EU should be, promoting democracy abroad, or ensuring that all its founding democratic principles are met by all member states first?
A: I think both are important, and both are interrelated. It is very difficult to go abroad and promote democracy if you’re not democratic yourself. We need to approach this more from an angle of humility. We can see that a lot of the challenges for democracy, like social media, misinformation, come from populism; these are all challenges that arise globally. They don’t only occur in new democracies, but also in established democracies. We need to have a global conversation about these issues, and what we can all do together to address them.
J: Cop26 is coming up. The world is in a bit of a chaotic state at the moment, with energy prices rising and debt piling up after covid. How do you feel about the upcoming climate conference? Do you think it will result in constructive deals? Do you feel positive about the potential outcomes?
A: In general I feel positive, as the pressure from civil society to achieve more has been so high. We see the climate crisis unfolding already in many parts of the world. I think this is a wake-up call for many world leaders. And we also see with these skyrocketing energy prices, we see that we need to become independent from fossil fuels in order to have more stable energy prices. Also, right now in Germany, the production of energy from renewable sources is cheaper than from other sources. I think there are grounds for optimism, but of course the leadership needs to happen. Fingers crossed.
J: Results from the Paris accord were mixed. Estimates vary – some articles state 16 countries have met their climate commitments, some say only 1 country has. How do we ensure that countries honour their commitments?
A: Peer pressure. That’s also why we fight so much for an ambitious climate policy in Germany, so we can lead by example. There needs to be pressure from civil society, but also from other leaders in those countries that aren’t honouring their commitments.
J: What do you think the biggest policy challenges facing the EU are?
A: Right now, I think it’s ensuring that member states honour democratic commitments. I think that’s a big issue, because the treaties didn’t really foresee a situation where member states wouldn’t honour those commitments. Now with reforms, we have some opportunities to put more pressure from the EU side on member states that don’t honour democratic commitments. Now these pressures need to be exerted. Right now, the Commission is still too hesitant. Of course, at the same time, we need to stick together and ensure that the union remains attractive.
J: Many countries in the EU, including Germany, have aging populations. This is skewing the weight or representation of certain age groups when it comes to elections. How do we engage younger people to get out and vote, as their votes are arguably needed now more than ever?
A: We need to lower the voting age, which the traffic light coalition has already agreed to do. So, the voting age will be lowered to 16 in Germany. We need young people in parliament. Right now, we have the youngest Bundestag ever. In the Green Party there are a lot of people under 30. Back in the days when I was elected as a 19-year-old, I was really the only one around. Now we have a lot more. That is something, seeing that they are represented is one of the good things about having more young people.
J: You were the youngest MP in the Germany parliament at your time of election. Do you have any advice for our readers about how to get into politics at such a young age?
A: It depends on what issue people are concerned about. It all needs to start there. My political engagement started at the kids group of Greenpeace. I cared a lot, and I still care a lot about the environment. I think finding that issue and starting in a civil society is always a good step. And from there finding a political party that represents you the best and getting involved there. Many political parties have youth organisations that are doing quite a good job. Not only being politically active but also providing a fun environment. The most important thing needs to be connected to motivation to change some policy area.
J: There has been some discussion about whether political parties are becoming less relevant. As seen in many countries in Europe, where traditional parties are losing ground to smaller parties, and with fewer people voting. Do you think that political parties are becoming less relevant?
A: In many countries, including Germany, this trend [of reduced voter turnout] has stopped, so the turnout is at least as stable, or even higher than it was before, so I think that society is becoming re-politicised. Perhaps because there are so many really existential issues on the agenda, like the climate crisis, like populism and all these issues that people really care about. Of course, that’s the beauty of democracy; parties can be born, and parties can die if they don’t address the concerns of voters. So, I think the issue that traditional parties are less relevant is not something to be concerned about. The issue to be concerned about is who are the new parties, and are they democratic? My party, the Green Party, is relatively new, right? It is about as old as I am, but still, compared to some of the other parties. We are 100% democratic. And there are other new parties where you doubt this and their commitment to democratic norms. For me, this is the key issue, the point that parties lose attractiveness is not that relevant, it matters that democratic parties are born, and manage to capture issues and trends.