Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the Turnout Problem 'The European Parliament Isn't Even Discussed'

Leading European politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a dual citizen of Germany and France, argues in an interview that national political leaders are responsible for the miserable turnout in last week's election. The Green Party veteran says its time to create a real European election.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many environmentalist parties gained seats in the European Parliament elections. France's Green Party, for whom you were a candidate this time, scored over 16 percent of the vote and has become France's second-biggest party in the European Parliament -- at least by a hair.

Cohn-Bendit: We have become greener, but not green enough. Nevertheless, more Europeans than ever before now like our proposals for the environmental restructuring of our society. That is a reason for hope.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you can only implement your ideas if you are part of a government. Are there French-German opportunities for a renaissance of Social Democrats and Greens, in Germany's autumn election, for example? Would it be possible to achieve that by working together with the Left Party or with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP)?

Cohn-Bendit: That's not the question right now. Anyone who allows themselves to get sucked into such tactical little games today has already lost. Our approach needs to be much broader.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how?

Cohn-Bendit: We Greens need to present the people our proposal for an alternative society. How do we want to live tomorrow? How are we going to get out of this environmental and economic crisis? After the election, people will see how many voters have decided in favor of our model and the share of seats they get in parliament. If there aren't enough votes for a coalition government of the (conservative) Christian Democrats (CDU) and the FDP, the situation could get interesting.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the moment, every indication suggests the parties will be able to form a majority.

Cohn-Bendit: Then that is just the way it will be. Amen. But then (German CDU Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (FDP head) Guido Westerwelle will have to show whether they can run the government. And they will not succeed. Many people either know this or feel this way already. That is why, I believe, there is considerable distrust in the country of the team of conservatives and their neoliberal vemicular appendix. For that reason, I think it's anything but certain that this pair will gain a majority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And then?

Cohn-Bendit: Then all political parties will have to consider what combination of parties can get us out of the crisis.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could a coalition government of Merkel's conservatives and the Greens then come into play?

Cohn-Bendit: All will have to consider everything -- and I mean all. The situation will be very complex. In order not to lose their orientation, people will have to make decisions based on their own political content and they must ask themselves whether the possible alliances make sense in terms of content.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Simply stated …

Cohn-Bendit: Simply stated, with what party do I want to implement my political program?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And if a partnership with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats makes sense …

Cohn-Bendit: … then we will do so. Anything else would be nonsense. I don't really believe it will happen, but if it turns out that such a coalition would not only be mathematically possible, but that it would also be politically viable, then of course we would do it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wouldn't you be breaking a Green Party taboo by doing so?

Cohn-Bendit: Come off it. After September's election, nothing will be the same as it was before. The dream is over. The phantom of the Left Party as a third force in politics, for example, will be over -- and some other things will come uncoiled …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you thinking of the Social Democrats?

Cohn-Bendit: Of the SPD of yesterday and yesteryear. The old social democratic model has played itself out. And you don't only see that in Germany. The Socialist Party in France, the Partito Democratico in Italy -- today they are lifeless structures that have no perspectives in society. They have no future. The socialists and social democrats in Europe who are still lively must finally start thinking and talking openly about society -- and not about themselves. They need to suggest alternatives, take risks. It's high time. Otherwise they will lose their party base.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That appears to be stripping all parties of their base -- at least if you take a look at the results of the European elections.

Cohn-Bendit: Europe is in a process of transformation. In the East, the new political structures are still standing on thin legs -- but that has nothing to do with the EU, but rather with their own history. And here in the West, the media view of Europe reduces it to a kiss between Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel. It presents Europe as an intergovernmental body and the European Parliament isn't even discussed. But politicians want things to stay that way just as much so that they don't lose their spotlight. Then the same politicians believe that they can campaign for just 14 days (in the European election) and that masses will turn out and vote. Because that doesn't work, they complain about perpetually shrinking voter turnout. But that is unacceptable. In France, our Green Party has conducted a seven-month long campaign, we have explained our plans and what should be decided in parliament …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But not even half of those eligible to vote bothered to turn out. Clearly those efforts weren't enough.

Cohn-Bendit: No, we need to liberate the European elections from their national constraints, we need to Europeanize them. That's why the Green Party is calling for at list some of the parliamentarians to come from a common, Europe-wide list of leading candidates. That would create a European political discussion. We cannot continue with these small-minded, provincial battles and call them European elections. And whoever forms the majority in parliament should also be able to determine who becomes president of the European Commission. It's just a shame …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A shame? You fear that won't happen?

Cohn-Bendit: On the contrary. I am certain that, in five years, the top people in the European Parliament will be elected Europe-wide on transnational candidate lists. It's just a shame that I won't be there to be a part of it. I've spent my life campaigning for it. When it finally happens, I will likely be too old and no longer there to experience it.

Interview conducted by Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Brussels.

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