European Campaign Trail: A Day on the Campaign Trail in Rhineland-Palatinate
Grape vines crisscross the rolling hills and deep valleys of Germany’s Rhineland Palatinate. Two and a half hours from Brussels, it seems a world away from the intensity of European Union politics in Brussels. With campaigning for the elections for the European Parliament underway, though, Brussels may be closer than it feels. Nicola Beer and Marcus Scheuren—respectively ranked first and ninth on the list of Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party—are among those visiting the region as candidates.
I joined them on the campaign trail for the day, hoping to find out how the EU and its policy landscape looks from the German countryside. I had expected a complex machinery of a campaign, complete with staff support but the candidates were on their own. Nicola Beer can rely on some support back in Berlin for planning meetings because she is the lead candidate and deputy head of the party. She has a driver. Marcus Scheuren runs a one-man shop, though. He has taken out time from his job at the European Parliament, now in recess due to the elections, and does much of his own campaign organizing, drives himself, and receives limited backing from the party headquarters in his home region of Rhineland-Palatinate. His campaign posters are paid from the party campaign budget.
At a meeting with citizens of the town of Bad Ems, it was obvious that both candidates are dedicated to the European Union. They spoke with passion about its role as guarantor of peace, freedom, and market access, and of their own personal experiences as exchange students. Yet the questions and reactions from the audience—mostly owners of small and medium businesses alongside members of the local party branch and of the media—were in striking juxtaposition. The EU was broken down in terms of its consequences for business owners and the candidates had to work hard not just to share their vision for European politics, but also to explain existing policies and to listen to how those policies affect German citizens every day.
"People tend not to understand the division of responsibility and powers in the process between the EU institutions and the member states’ governments."
One hotel owner asked whether EU policymakers realized what the General Data Protection Regulation of 2018 actually meant for small businesses? While the new regulation builds on earlier ones and is designed to harmonize data privacy laws across Europe and protect their data privacy, citizens do not seem to see the security aspect. There is great insecurity and frustration about the complexity of the new rules and how to implement them. It was eye-opening for some members of the audience to learn about the role that Germany as an EU member state, and not the institutions in Brussels, plays in the interpretation of the new regulation and putting it into practice.
Someone else from the audience wanted confirmation about something he had recently seen reported on television: whether the EU gives millions of euros to its member states to spend freely in any way they want with little control? Beer and Scheuren tried to assure the audience that the governments who receive EU funding share the responsibility for ensuring the funds are spent correctly. (For context, the German government approved a budget of €356.4 billion for 2019 while the EU budget for the same year totals €165.8 billion, benefiting 28 member states). The candidates explained that errors in EU spending can come from administrative mistakes where rules have not been followed correctly and not necessarily the result of fraud—and that when suspicions are raised the European Anti-Fraud Office investigates. Despite the clarification, skepticism seemed to linger in the room.
Another person working in the hospitality business asked whether experts are consulted when EU policies are made. This required Beer and Scheuren to explain how the policymaking process plays out on the EU level. Mechanisms are in place to ensure that, when a new initiative is proposed, its potential economic, social, and environmental consequences are assessed. In this process, different interested parties such as local authorities and representatives of industry and civil society are consulted through public consultations or parliamentary hearings. Experts give advice on technical issues. This should ensure that policy proposals correspond to the needs of those concerned and avoid unnecessary red tape.
However, it was clear that the audience in the room remained unsure as to how they could participate in such a consultation process. And again they needed to be reminded that national parliaments, in this case, the Bundestag, can also play a role by beginning the discussion on certain policy matters early to shape the direction of the debate.
Questions about how the EU works were on people’s minds, but not in terms of policymakers use. The perception that “the ones up there”, as one participant phrased it, are making the decisions seemed to prevail.
What remained with me from this day on the campaign trail with Beer and Scheuren was that the questions raised speak to the complexity of EU policymaking. People tend not to understand the division of responsibility and powers in the process between the EU institutions and the member states’ governments. While the two candidates tried to clarify how the EU works, they did not manage to bridge the gap between how Brussels frames issues and locals see them. As someone who spends all day in the policy community speaking the language of Brussels, the gap in understandings and perceptions between citizens and policymakers concerns me. It is something more people in the policy world need to be thinking about.
After the discussion, there was a brief moment of bonding between the candidates and liberal-minded locals. Then the groups parted, and the candidates were off to their next meeting, this time with a regional newspaper, 45 minutes away.