With typical Teutonic angst, Germans are currently worried about the fact that they might not be happy.
From high-level politicians to grassroots civic society, there are concerns that despite being Europe’s largest economy and enjoying high living standards, citizens may not be as chirpy as they could be.
So with typical Teutonic efficiency, the government has resolved to find out. Chancellor Angela Merkel has organized a series of talks across the country where happy and, presumably, sad members of the community can give their views on two key questions: What is especially important to you in life and what makes up the quality of life in Germany?
The government chose to host the first talk in the ‘Living Well in Germany’ program at a landmark gasometer building in Berlin, home to the studio where the country’s most famous talk show host, Günther Jauch, holds his long-running Sunday-night show.
“The point of the event is to listen. We are dependent on the open discussion.”
“We are curious,” Ms. Merkel told the audience of about 150 “organizers,” who represented schools, unions, churches and associations from across Germany.
Her deputy and minister of economic affairs Sigmar Gabriel is more open. “The point of the event is to listen,” he said, acknowledging that political parties no longer reflect the full breadth of views in the country and that partners and intermediaries must be relied on to fill them in. “We are dependent on the open discussion,” he adds.
At this opening, however, the citizens are not allowed to ask anything. Instead, the audience members will be dispatched to their home towns to organize a citizens’ dialog, with the government appointing moderators. There will be about 200 rounds of discussions and federal ministers will be involved in about half of them.
In a nearly election-free year, the citizenry is being asked about the good things in life. Ms. Merkel says she wants to find out what people think about the key questions of our time. She says what’s personally important are her and her family’s health, friends and the joy of work. For Mr. Gabriel, it’s his two daughters. He also wants to “live an honest life.”
A sample of German CEOs uncovered similar responses. Elmar Degenhart, boss of tire maker Continental, replied: “My family, who give me security and warmth. Also, the possibility to make a contribution to Germany’s sustainability.”
Stephan Gemkow, chairman of the Haniel retail conglomerate, said: “Despite all the criticism that we like to make with regard to structure in Germany, it gives us all security and dependability in daily life, for which the world envies us.”
The response of Karlheinz Blessing, CEO of steel producer Dillinger Hütte, was more straightforward: “Health, friends, family, security, freedom.”
So what can and should politics actually do? Opinion polls carried out for the government show that people’s needs are relatively simple.
To the question of how politics actually influences their lives, many replied that, despite rising retirement ages, benefits cuts and employment quotas for women, it doesn’t. Their lives were going well and they want to be left alone. And when asked what was important to them, many said healthy food and personal security.
It’s not known who will actually benefit from the Living Well in Germany program.
The concept for the series of talks was conceived by Ms. Merkel’s PR strategists – before the sudden eruption onto the political stage of the anti-immigration right-wing Pegida movement late last year. The movement stands for political alienation, and has been helped by falling participation in elections and by fewer people joining parties.
In Saxony, Pegida’s main center of support, the state government reacted to Pegida demonstrations in the city of Dresden by encouraging dialog. The citizens talk and the government listens.
It’s not known who will actually benefit from the Living Well in Germany program. It’s known that Ms. Merkel is keen to introduce government indicators that quantify more than the usual growth and finance figures, so these could well come into play. A committee could evaluate the series of dialogs and report back on how quality of life can be measured. Mr. Gabriel is keen on a “measured quantity” for costs in the future.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel want to present an action plan after the dialogs are completed and then implement it. The two parties that make up the coalition government, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Mr. Gabriel’s Social Democrats have both agreed on that.
But at the end of the dialog, there will be no “magic elixir,” says Mr. Gabriel.
The debate will no doubt heat up in forthcoming election battles.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org