Last week, on Wednesday the 22nd May 2010, I had the great pleasure of attending an event at Schloss Bellevue in Berlin which was titled “Demokratie ganz nah – 16 Ideen für ein gelebtes Grundgesetz”, or “Democracy up close – 16 ideas for living with the Basic Law”. The event was largely a celebration of 16 individuals, one from each of the German states, who were presented with medals to recognise their work improving political education within groups who are generally less engaged with politics. While the event was largely a presentation ceremony, it also featured a debate, moderated by Dr Jaqueline Boysen. The debate explored the question: “70 Jahre Grundgesetz – Was muss passieren um unsere Verfassung möglichst vielen Bürgerinnen und Bürgern nahezubringen?”, which roughly translates as “70 years of Basic Law – what must happen to make our constitution as accessible to as many citizens as possible?”.
The awards were presented by the federal centre for political education, and the ceremony was part of the celebrations marking the 70th Anniversary of the Grundgeset. Grundgesetz can be translated as either “Basic” or “Fundamental” Law, and is the name of the German constitution. The Basic Law was prepared by a committee of experts and civil servants, and guarantees basic rights – such as freedom of religion and expression, as well as equality under the law. It was approved on the 8th May 1948 in Bonn, and came into effect on the 23rd May of the same year – after it had also been ratified by the occupying Allied Forces. It is referred to as the Basic Law rather than the constitution, because it was initially intended to be a provisional document which would only be valid until the reunification of East and West Germany. However, in 1990 the Basic Law was adopted as the constitution of a united Germany. The document therefore remains in use until this day, although it has been edited a total of 62 times since it was created – with many of these changes happening during the reunification process. Any proposed changes to the Basic Law have to be passed with a two-thirds majority by both of the German houses of parliament – the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.
I was particularly excited to attend this event, as it was taking place at the Schloss Bellevue. The palace has been the sole official residence of the Federal President since 1994, although the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany - Theodor Heuss – was using Schloss Bellevue as one of his official residences, alongside Villa Hammerschmidt in Bonn, prior to this date. Situated at the edge of the Tiergarten, near to the German Bundestag, Schloss Bellevue was built in the late 18th Century. The name Bellevue, meaning “beautiful view”, refers to the beautifully landscaped gardens surrounding the palace, and the views towards Charlottenburg and across the Spree River which can be seen from the palace. I also got to experience the beautiful interior of the palace, as the awards ceremony was taking place in the Great Hall – the palace’s larges room. Rather fittingly, the walls of the hall were displaying large paintings which symbolised the ability of communication to transcend barriers.
The sixteen award recipients achieved public honours for their efforts in promoting political engagement, often over a long period of time. The awards were personally presented by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), who has served as the German President - or Bundespräsident - since March 2017. The president represents Germany in matters of international law, and at official gatherings, but has few opportunities to influence day-to-day politics in Germany. Each president serves a term of five years, and can only be re-elected once. Although the signature of the president is required for laws are to take effect, the role is largely ceremonial. Historically, the president had further reaching powers, and could annul basic laws or rule with emergency law, but these powers were misused, which played a significant role in Hitler’s rise to power. Therefore, in modern Germany the president has no real power in the executive part of the government.
The work of the award recipients was incredibly varied, and they worked with a diverse range of people including children, young people, refugees and migrants. However, they all worked towards the improvement of political education. The sixteen award recipients (in alphabetical order according to State) were:
- Manuela Rukavina for work in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg
- Philipp Meier for work in Bayreuth, Bayern/Bavaria
- Birger Schmidt for work in Berlin
- Michael Kurzwelly for work in Frankfurt (Oder), Brandenburg
- Dr Eva Schöck-Quinteros Yáñez for work in Lilenthal, Bremen
- Amadeus Hempel for work in Hamburg
- Dr. Naime Ҫakιr-Mattner, for work in Neu Isenburg, Hessen/Hesse
- Ramona Ramsenthaler for work in Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern/Mecklenburg-Vorpommerania
- Klaus Windolph for work in Hannover, Niedersachsen/Lower Saxony
- Dirk Sauerborn for work in Erkelenz, Nordrhein-Westfalen/North Rhine Westphalia
- Christof Pies for work in Kastellaun, Rheinland-Pfalz/Rhineland-Palatinate
- Rieke Eulenstein for work in St Wendel, Saarland
- Joachim Rudolph for work in Makersdorf, Sachsen/Saxony
- Marie-Luise Kühn for work in Naumburg (Saale), Sachsen-Anhalt/Saxony-Anhalt
- Anke Homann for work in Achterwehr, Schleswig-Holstein
- Ulrich Ballhausen for work in Weimar, Thüringen/Thuringia
It was particularly exciting to see the recognition of Ulrich Ballhausen, as he is a member of the advisory council of JUGEND FÜR EUROPA (EUsolidarycorps). Ulrich Ballhausen’s award was celebrating his decades of passionate work striving to make democracy something that more people are able to directly experience. He has done this by questioning how the power of political judgement can be practiced and enforced. In particular, he worked with youth people through the “Europäische Jungendbildungs- und Jungendbegegnungsstätte”, or the European Youth Education and Engagement Centre, located in Weimar. He is also known for his engagement with the Weimar-Jena Academy, and with the Institut für Didaktik der Demokratie (The Institute for the Teaching of Democracy) within the Leibnitz University in Hannover. This allows him to both engage in research and explore practical applications. He has achieved a great deal in the area of international youth work and contributed a great deal for European understanding.
Attending this awards ceremony was really eye opening. Even more so, because it coincided with the European Parliament elections, which allowed me to directly witness the impacts of the political engagement which were discussed at the event. European Parliament elections are not always considered to be major votes by individuals across Europe and are traditionally used by EU citizens predominantly as protest votes to demonstrate frustration with their national governments. Turnout has been steadily declining since the elections were first held in 1979. However, this year the official turnout estimates for 27 countries (excluding the UK) was 51%. This is a very significant increase on the last EU elections in 2014, where only 42.6% of eligible voters participated. This has coincided with a shift in the status quo, with large increases in votes for smaller parties such as the Greens, at the expense of more established parties – which demonstrates that by voting, individuals have very real power to change the outcome of elections.
Of course, no one can force anyone else to vote. However, getting the opportunity to attend this event has made it clear to me that when they do vote, citizens are able to get involved in the way that their country, or the EU in this case, are governed. Political participation is therefore one of the best ways for “normal people” to make positive changes to their communities. Some people within our communities might not know how important it is to be politically engaged, while others don’t always have the privilege of voting. Nevertheless, by working to help more people see the benefits of political engagement, and to access political processes, we can work towards making all of our communities more positive spaces. Whether it be through voting, campaigning, discussing politics with others, or even running in an election, there are many ways to engage with politics and to make that sure your voice is heard. Make sure you, and those around you, are not missing out!