On our second day in Berlin, we began our site visits with a trip to the Bundestag, where we were shown around by an official in the upper house of the German Parliament. The parliament is not currently in session, but will return later in September. As we walked through several parliamentary buildings, one of the things that I noticed was how much care was put into the architecture and design of the buildings. The various architects and designers employed to work on the buildings were given an extraordinary amount of control over their respective areas, and the resulting rooms and buildings are really something to see. Not only are they impressive architectural works of art, many of the features on the parliamentary buildings have great historical or political significance. For example, the plenary room, which our guide referred to as the most important room of the parliament, was designed in such a way that a person can stand outside the building from a great distance away and see directly into the glass walls of the room. The intended result was a room that is both transparent and somehow accessible to the people, reflecting the transparency of the parliament and processes. German history is also an integral part of the parliamentary buildings; there are many references to German identity and history in the buildings themselves and in the tunnels under them. Below the Bundestag in one tunnel is a construction of boxes bearing the names of German MPs. Certain boxes are specially marked and commemorate the members who were killed or imprisoned standing up to the Nazi regime. In this way, the construction is not just a record of those who have served the German people in parliament; it is also a sort of memorial.
The tour of the Bundestag presented an opportunity to see some incredible architecture as well as a glimpse into German culture and history. In each country we’ve visited so far, we have seen multiple government buildings and parliaments, but the visit to the Bundestag gave us an example of how history affects national identity in a very visible way. Throughout the buildings, we saw memorials and monuments commemorating German independence and reunification as well as the events of World War II. Entire rooms and buildings have been redesigned to intentionally reflect changes in German identity and values, making them works of art as well as historical reminders. It was incredibly interesting to see a visible representation of how deeply German culture and politics are linked to historical events.
After the tour, we were briefed by Mr. Hardt, a member of the German Parliament as well as the official coordinator for transatlantic cooperation. He began the briefing by speaking about some of the main topics on the agendas of the EU and the German parliament; according to Hardt, the primary concern at the moment is Brexit, which few expected would actually happen and for which no one was prepared. As the European Union prepares for the UK’s secession, their top priority will be to avoid losing power by showing the European people that they are still strong and prepared to follow through in spite of the referendum. As a part of this effort, Angela Merkel will release a new strategy approach after this coming March, which might involve closer cooperation between state governments as well as EU institutions. We also discussed the potential economic and policy effects of Brexit on both the United Kingdom and the European Union, including what the possible impacts will be on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In regards to how TTIP will be affected, Hardt’s opinion was that both the EU and the US consider TTIP and its progress a top priority, which will take precedence over any future bilateral trade agreements with the UK. As a result, the UK is at a disadvantage in its trade negotiations with both sides, and its relationship with the US will likely deteriorate, as the United States’ first trade priority is with the EU and not the UK. He also remarked that the UK has weakened significantly its bargaining power with the EU by not actively taking a role in EU politics and issues for the past few years. He finds it unlikely that Great Britain will be able to remain within the single market; while it will probably form a special agreement with the EU, it will not enjoy full integration into the single market after leaving. Hardt also spoke about the direct impacts that Brexit has had on Germany, its role as a member state, and its people’s perceptions of the EU. With the loss of such a large and influential member state, it is possible that Germany will take a stronger leadership role within the EU.
We also discussed the rise of right-wing politics across the European continent, a trend which has become evident with the events of the UK referendum and the recent presidential elections (and re-elections) in Austria. The success of the French Front Nationale and the Austrian People’s Party has been characterized by the rise of national-populistic rhetoric and strong anti-EU sentiment, which is also evident in the words and actions of a number of members of the European Parliament who are actively anti-EU. The events of the Syrian refugee crisis and recent economic hardships (largely due to the financial crisis of 2008), have increased similar sentiments in many European countries. However, by contrast, public support for the EU has recently increased in Germany. Mr. Hardt mentioned that even in the midst of the refugee influx, which encouraged right-wing support in other countries, support for the German far right party was only around 10%, and has since fallen lower. He told us that while the far right party will likely become an acting party in parliament next year, they will do so only as a tiny percentage, echoing what we heard from the official who toured the Bundestag with us earlier in the day.
Finally, our briefing with Mr. Hardt included a conversation on current German politics, including an analysis of Angela Merkel. In particular, he mentioned a decisive moment in Merkel’s career in which she spoke on the topic of refugees, saying that if one can’t be friendly and open to refugees in Germany, then it is not her country. It was very interesting and informative to hear the perspective of a German MP on Angela Merkel and her approach to refugee policy, which has such huge implications for European states today. It was also interesting to hear Hardt’s opinions on TTIP- he gave us part of his explanation as to why negotiations might be moving so slowly. In addition to being extremely complex and difficult to explain to citizens, the trade deal is also encountering issues with differing standards of production, mistrust on both sides of the negotiations, and a certain reluctance to embrace changes that might come with a final deal. The 14th round of negotiations began on the previous day, and there will be a council meeting in September regarding progress. Hardt finds it unlikely that the agreement will be finished before President Obama’s term is up, which means that the next US president will very likely have to look at the final stages of the agreement and push it through. While many speakers have expressed extreme doubt that the agreement will pass if not completed under the Obama administration, Hardt seemed to be of the opinion that the new US president will be able to finish the TTIP negotiations. The briefing has only made it more evident how closely the world is watching the upcoming elections; it’s been spoken about in nearly every single site visit, and this one was no exception. Speaking with MP Hardt was a great opportunity to gain a further understanding of the importance of cooperation between the EU and the US as well as insight into German politics. As we come to the end of the program, it will be very interesting to follow Germany’s evolving role in the EU and in transatlantic relations.