"From the crisis into the future - how can we work together to bring about transformation?"

24 November 2020

How can we as a society succeed in bringing about the fundamental changes needed for the future - sustainable transformation - democratically? What democratic processes and institutions are necessary for successful transformation? Which stakeholders are crucial?

The Federal President discussed this issue at the tenth "Forum Bellevue on the Future of Democracy" with Maja Göpel (political economist and Scientific Director of The New Institute), Udo Di Fabio (Professor of Public Law at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn and former judge at the Federal Constitutional Court), Thea Dorn (author) and Wolfgang Merkel (political scientist and Director of the Research Unit for Democracy and Democratisation at the Berlin Social Science Center), who took part in the discussion via video link from Vienna. In view of the current pandemic in Germany, the discussion in the Great Hall of Schloss Bellevue had to take place without an audience and was streamed live.

The Federal President stated at the very outset that the virus had not so far led to a division in German society. On the contrary, the joint fight against COVID-19 had to date strengthened confidence in democratic institutions. "We have even seen that fighting COVID-19 can strengthen democracy and cohesion in our society. And that is an experience that can encourage us and build hope for the coming weeks." He went on to say that we must not allow the virus to divide society in future. Rather, the task was to ensure that young and old, those at risk and those less at risk, stood together, during the crisis but also thereafter. This autumn and winter, COVID-19 would remain "a major, deadly threat", said the Federal President. "We all need to keep taking this threat seriously, we need to take it very seriously."

Furthermore, it was important "not to lose sight of the other major tasks facing humanity", the Federal President continued. The fight against global warming was the biggest challenge of our time. And it was possible to learn from the current crisis how to tackle it. "We should ask ourselves what we need to change today to stride forth towards a brighter future."

"The target of a climate-neutral world has been agreed but is it really firmly anchored in our future?" asked Federal President Steinmeier. "Many people in our country have long been aware that we need to rethink, to change direction, perhaps even radically, to flatten the global warming curve, just like the curve of the pandemic, as we have learned, (...) not further down the road but as soon as possible, right now." However, he went on to say that we could only move towards a climate-neutral future if society as a whole was involved: "The pressure to act on the climate crisis does not make democratic agreement and involvement less important but more important."

In this connection, the Federal President spoke of a time of transformation which was comparable in significance and scale to the Neolithic or Industrial Revolutions. "History has taught us", stated Steinmeier, "that such processes of change exert pressure on societies, that they can create deep rifts."

Climate policy therefore had to take three aspects into account: first of all, it had to be based on a democratic understanding within society in which citizens participate; secondly, it had to be shaped in a way that ensured that burdens and opportunities were fairly distributed; and thirdly, it had to be a global climate policy focusing on the planet.

Before the discussion commenced, Federal President Steinmeier stated that it would certainly not be about whether climate change was real or about any individual measures. Rather, he wanted to discuss how the changes undeniably necessary in order to fight climate change should be shaped in a democracy, how they could succeed and what role democratic institutions and the public played in such a transformation.

When asked whether people had failed to recognise there was a climate crisis, the political economist and transformation researcher Maja Göpel answered that she certainly did get the impression that many had indeed not yet recognised the scale of global warming. She therefore called for enlightened societies which learned from their experiences and formulated the consequences as collective answers.

Maja Göpel pointed out that the decisions and measures taken to date had fallen far behind what transformation research believed was possible and expressed understanding for those scientists who were warning there was an urgent need for action. More important, in her view, was the question as to how democratic processes could be re-organised so that the "best knowledge and judgment" came together in a pluralist manner and took on a binding form, similar to what had already happened in civic councils in European countries.

"Democracy is civilisation's response to the growth in reason"

The Professor of Public Law and former Federal Constitutional Court judge Udo Di Fabio first of all addressed citizens' expectations of democratic institutions as they tackle major social challenges. He said that people had less of a problem recognising the causes of crises but, above all, a problem with the impact of measures aimed at tackling them. It was precisely this that had to be negotiated in a democratic society: "We need a representative democracy in which debate takes place, one which is deliberative, which finds solutions that are supported by the majority of society and also by the minority, which accepts the decisions of the majority." He went on to say that democracy was "civilisation's actual response to the growth in reason" and was therefore "without an alternative". He added that in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon agonal democracies, German democracy was driven by a "desire for consensus" and that this often concealed conflicts. Sometimes, in the face of such global challenges, however, we had to remember that allowing antagonistic interests to exist and not arguing them away with a good versus evil approach was part and parcel of a pluralistic society.

Trust in democracy cannot be a one-way street

The writer Thea Dorn said that politicians rightly expected the public to trust them but that politicians also had to trust citizens. In the light of major challenges such as the pandemic, but also climate change, she spoke of a downward spiral of trust on both sides: on that of politicians as well as that of citizens. For Thea Dorn, the crucial question for democracy was the belief that "democracy makes us more intelligent." Or, she went on to say, society had to leave knowledge-gathering processes - also due to the complexity of the issues - to technocrats and scientists. Thea Dorn therefore believes that, above all, democracy is the readiness to have a frank argument, an open debate on the most efficient measures. She said that the most important thing was how the fears on both sides were dealt with: how can we ensure that we were not "taken hostage" by our own fears? How can we confront the fears of others with "open hearts"?

Transformation goes hand in hand with people's great uncertainty

The transformation researcher Wolfgang Merkel confirmed that transformation always went hand in hand with a particular level of uncertainty during the transition. In turn, uncertainty was one of the major problems for a democracy. Those plagued by uncertainty were drawn towards authoritarian solutions. The researcher, who took part in the discussion via video link from Vienna, argued that moreover, in such periods of transformation, if things went wrong it was the bottom third of society, or perhaps even the bottom half, which paid the price for the change of circumstances. In his view, democratic input was therefore important. He believed it was a mistake to primarily view democracy from the angle of its output. "If that happens we will find ourselves on a slippery slope towards more authoritarian government mechanisms."

At the close of the discussion, the Federal President made it clear once more that a democracy thrived on debate. Particularly in the current phase of the pandemic, he said that he had observed an intensive debate at all levels. He believed that the range of views had even broadened during the last few months. He expressly encouraged everyone to continue actively engaging in public debate on the issues affecting the future of democracy.