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The Left: In Conversation With Klaus Lederer

Klaus Lederer is state chairman of Die Linke (‘The Left’) in Berlin. Since 2003, he has been member of the Berlin parliament, led by an SPD-Linke government from 2001 to 2011. In this interview Klaus Lederer discusses his views on Angela Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis, the divided reaction from the German civil society and the possible influence of the local government. The interview was conducted one day before Die Linke officially announced Klaus Lederer as its 2016 mayoral candidate.

Concerning the current influx of immigrants from the Middle East, Germany, and Angela Merkel in particular, have received a lot of positive coverage from the international press. To what extent can you share these sudden sympathies?

To some extent. At least the short-term decision to say we would let the trains from Hungary pass through to Germany came completely unexpectedly. Moreover, we should applaud Merkel’s insistence that there is no upper limit to the human right of refuge and her appeal that decency and humanity are at the bedrock of the political apparatus. On the other hand, we know what Merkel is like: what counts one day does not necessarily count the next. For example, she introduced border controls in Bavaria because the CSU did not want to burden the Oktoberfest with the refugees. Such indecent behaviour which makes concessions to reactionary forces only stirs hatred. We also need to talk about refugee accommodation – subject to arson attacks throughout Germany over the last months and years. We need to talk about racist grassroots movements like PEGIDA, BÄRGIDA and other sorts of reactionary indignation.

And so the situation in Germany is very ambivalent. In face of reactionary voices like Victor Orbán in Hungary or Horst Seehofer in Bavaria, the German government stands out – but only relatively.

Were you surprised not only by the political reaction, but also the reaction of civil society in terms of the sheer number of volunteers?

I believe we have to understand Merkel’s statements as a response to the solidarity shown throughout German civil society. In the face of the serious failure of state institutions and administration, people have organised themselves. With this newly emerged solidarity and their willingness to help, they managed to take over functions that would normally belong to the government. But again, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that right-wing populism is on the increase, that racist voices grow louder and that there are assault and arson attacks on refugee accommodation.

Some people try to build up political pressure in the insane belief that refugees are motivated by pocket money from the German state when they pack their stuff in their bitter destitution in the Syrian civil war. We, of course, remember such slogans from the time when the unholy ‘asylum compromise’ was agreed to in 1992 (when the CDU-FDP government and the SPD opposition changed the constitution to restrict the right to asylum in response to large-scale anti-refugee protests).

These laws are still part of our problem today. They were the forerunner to later EU legislations. Now again, legal paths to Germany and legal ways to seek refuge are being restricted. We cannot leave these facts out of the picture. The only way to get to Germany is through Frankfurt airport, all other routes are via other countries. The German government is now trying to leave Southern European countries alone with the problem, which is indecent and divisive. So we find ourselves in the same situation we had around the crisis in Greece. We have a common market, but we do not share social and political responsibilities.

If we look at Berlin, what would you say are the room for manoeuvre of the current local government (SPD-CDU) and how would you assess their actions so far?

The room of manoeuvre in Berlin obviously does not extend to asylum legislation [this is decided at a federal level]. The possibilities we have here is to do everything we can to make sure that people arriving in Berlin can lead a self-determined life as soon as possible. We cannot fool ourselves and believe that the people who come here from the Syrian civil war or who have fled from Afghanistan will go back within a few years. That’s why it is necessary not to lose any time. We need to see that people can live in normal conditions, without being stigmatised, can participate in our society and build a life of their own without being dependent on state benefits. The first problem we encounter is the fact that registration, initial reception, and the asylum procedures take an incredibly long time. While these procedures are ongoing, refugees have basically no chance to lead an autonomous life. We’ve got a situation in which Berlin was not prepared and still isn’t, even though it had been clear for years that we would come to this point. During the SPD-Linke government, we have started to create accommodation that would not look like refugee camps – we were hoping to get people into normal housing. Since 2011, when the current government came into power, we have seen that these efforts have been discontinued. So this year we had debates about so-called “container villages” which we reject because such large-scale facilities tend to lead to stigmatisation and prevent people from living a self-determined life. Today we are in a situation where sports halls are requisitioned and tent villages are set up so the refugees can at least find shelter.

It is a complete and utter disaster. You just need to look at the scenes from the LAGeSo [Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales – Berlin’s central registration office for asylum seekers] the authorities put most of its energy into enforcing the parking ban and clashed with the volunteers that wanted to get closer to the premises in order to provide exactly the things that should be the state’s responsibility – primary medical attention, something to drink and to eat, clothing. Of course it is great to see the ways in which civil society initiatives spring up. Unfortunately, the Senate now sits back and uses the volunteers to praise itself instead of working on its own shortcomings. The truth is, if we hadn’t got the volunteers, everything would have collapsed by now.

With elections in Berlin next year, what do your party’s proposals on the issue look like?

In December 2014 we outlined our conceptual proposal concerning asylum policies, ranging from accommodation to participation and integration, and fighting against racism. Refugees whose sexuality does not conform to the ruling norms of others’ countries of origin – or the supposed norms in this country – need to be protected from assault. We also need to support not only refugees, but anyone who is disadvantaged on the housing market. We need to secure education with special offers for refugee children, as well as German classes for everyone. But I do not see a reason to turn this into a special topic for the election. What will always be a main topic for us and will also be a topic for the election is the strengthening of civil society against racism, to provide information to fight right-wing populism and stand together against neo-Nazis.

We need to show the refugees that they are welcome and support them so they can lead a self-determined life.

By Johannes Kuhnert 
Photo Ben Gross

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