People often complain that non-Germans are disenfranchised in Berlin because they are not allowed to vote. I will not argue with this assessment. Instead I will make a list here of things that non-nationals can do to influence government and politics.
Participation is a two way street. Local organizations desperately need new ideas and people who can execute on them pragmatically.
The list below has become quite long and doing everything on it will prove difficult unless you have infinite time on your hands. I would encourage readers to do one or two things as an exercise in good citizenship and see where that leads.
Of course this assumes that you want to influence things without spending large piles of money. If you do have money to spend, you should not be reading this.
There are a couple of things that you can do to make yourself more effective. You don’t have to do any of this but you’ll find out soon enough why it’s a good idea.
There’s no way around it. Like in any country, in Germany most things are decided in German. You can easily live in Berlin only speaking English, but you will have almost zero influence on society.
The English skill level even among university educated young Germans can be pretty poor. Many older people, the ones who are actually in charge, will be very uncomfortable doing anything in English and they will not be able to admit this (because that would mean that they are not properly ‘gebildet’).
Learning rudimentary German will multiply your effectiveness. I’ve seen people take lessons a couple of times a week quickly level up in successive months. Professional fluency is a pretty long road but you should be able to follow along from B1/2. Participating in politics will also pull up your language level more quickly than watching Tatort ever will.
- The Deutsch Akademie offers one of the supposedly better German courses
Become a German national
People who do not have German citizenship can only participate in the lowest levels of local government (more on that later). European nationals can also vote in the European elections while they live in Germany. That’s it.
Living in Germany without being a German national means that you will have to pay taxes but electorally you will be almost fully disenfranchised. There are people who want to change this but don’t count on it happening in the next decade. The largest party, the CDU, only stands to lose from an expansion of the franchise. And while the CDU may be shrinking, the nativist tendencies in German politics are not.
You will be better off applying for German citizenship as soon as you are eligible. Doing things like learning the language, putting down roots and being an active participant in (civil) society will expedite your process of naturalization.
- See what you have to do for naturalisation
- Prepare for the naturalisation test which is good practice in and of itself
There are additional skills that you can bring to the table that will make you personally more effective and a valuable addition to whichever organization you engage with.
Time is one of the things that you will need a lot of to do anything. This privileges people who have free time and who don’t have care duties that they need to perform after work. For example during my year of parental leave (Elternzeit) I could not do anything outside of the house. Other than increased awareness I don’t see a direct solution to this.
Everything you can learn around organization: inbox management, digital fluency, project management, GTD will be of tremendous use to you personally. The skills do not transfer well within volunteer environments but you can be an island of order and commitment in a whirling sea of chaos.
Any skills that you have around social media, digital production (HTML, video, photography) and PR/communication will be very useful since campaigning is increasingly happening online, even in Germany. Knowing German will be useful here as well since deliverables have to be written in German and they have to be flawless. Errors in written German mark the sender as dumb and the message as not to be taken seriously. Get your writing proofed.
And finally, most actual political work here is done by people with law degrees. I think that is quite a high bar to set for participation and it biases the kinds of outcomes politics generates, but that’s the way things are. You will either need a law degree yourself or you will need to become fluent in German law to participate fully.
The highest level of government in Germany is the federal one (or the national one) and it is commonly called the Bund. The federation consists of sixteen states (Länder) of which three are city-states: Berlin, Hamburg & Bremen. Berlin, the city we are talking about, is a state and Berlin itself is divided into twelve boroughs (Bezirke).
Each of these bodies has its own democratically elected parliament and government which decides on laws and regulations. As a non-German and an inhabitant of Berlin you only get to vote and stand for office at the lowest level, which is the borough. This wouldn’t be a huge problem in a regular city, but in Berlin it’s kinda inconvenient.
That’s because the boroughs of Berlin are not independent from the main state government (Berlin). They are subdivisions of the state and they are clearly urban but they are not quite cities. You can see this on all official correspondence where the name of a borough will be suffixed with the phrase von Berlin. The borough has a very narrow authority where it can decide things and it has to have its budget approved by the state.
The local level has a minimal impact on the city but it’s also the most accessible level of representation. I would guess that this is an intentional deflection to let the politicians at the state level do their jobs undisturbed.
At that lowest level there are monthly local parliamentary meetings ( Bezirksverordneteversammlung (BVV)) with a local government (Bezirksamt). At the state level there is the state parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus) that checks the state government (Senat). And at the federal level there is the parliament (Bundestag) checking the government (Bundesregierung).
Each of these three levels can be found in Berlin and each level’s power is inversely proportional to its accessibility. If you go to your local monthly BVV meeting, you will likely find a casual, somewhat amateurish (these are mostly volunteers) event where the locations of pedestrian crossings are discussed. At the state level, things start looking a lot more parliamentarian. And at the federal level, everything is serious business and policies influencing the lives of everybody in the country and large parts of the world are determined.
- Visit a BVV meeting for your borough (here the information for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg)
- Or visit the session of a committee (Ausschuss) that interests you
- Find office hours advertised with a politician of your interest and go talk to them (even mayor Michael Müller has them once in a while)
- Speak in during a meeting if ever the opportunity presents itself. (Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.)
- Repeat the above for the state level (calendar)
- Repeat the above for the federal level (calendar)
Political parties are segmented along the same levels (local, state, federal) that the administration is and communication between these levels within parties is fairly sparse and formalized.
The government of the city-state of Berlin right now is called R2G (rot-rot-grün) which stands for SPD-Linke-Grüne. In the past the city used to be run by SPD-CDU (rot-schwarz) and for a while even by SPD-Linke (rot-rot). Berlin governments of the past made billions disappear and presided over massive social housing sell-offs and brutal austerity measures. Compared to those, the current government seems to be doing fine.
The political parties are at their most accessible locally and will have regular meetings in every borough. These meetings are open to the general public so you can just drop by unannounced and attend. Everything will almost certainly be in German so this will be a good occasion to practice. Anybody present will be more than willing to explain the things you don’t understand. The only thing you as a non-member cannot do is vote.
Participating too regularly without becoming a member will probably prompt some conversations around the topic. Every political party is eager for more attention to their work and to get more people who will lend their bodies and brains to their efforts. As a non-German you totally can become a member. Participate too regularly after you’re a member and more likely than not, you’ll be asked to hold some function.
Political party membership and organization in Germany are legally regulated (unlike for instance in the Netherlands). Becoming a member is fairly easy, though not necessarily cheap. At the moment I’m not sure whether membership is worth it in any party.
It’s worth mentioning that the Left has an internationals subgroup which organizes events in English.
Political campaigns also happen every other year or so, whether it is for municipal elections, national, European or yet another referendum. The high pressure environment of the campaign is the best opportunity to get to know what political parties (say they) stand for and to get involved.
- Find the websites of your local political parties
- Go to a local party regular meeting of your choosing (and don’t forget to have drinks afterwards)
- Research which party you would become a member of if you wanted and what that would entail
- Go talk to a politician if you see them campaigning in the streets
- Follow Jon Worth who candidly writes and tweets about his experience as a British member of the Grüne
Law is a big deal in Germany and there are all kinds of courts. A thorough discussion of the legal system is outside of the scope of this piece (not to mention my expertise). There is one very curious avenue for participation here.
In certain courts, lay judges (Schöffen) are allowed to participate in proceedings and get an equal say in the verdict and sentencing. People from the general population can apply to become a lay judge (there seems to be a shortage of them) for five years. The system has some similarities to jury duty and is intended to make sure that court proceedings remain grounded in society.
You could become a Schöffe but you would of course have to be a German national.
- Sit in on proceedings of a court case at Amtsgericht Tiergarten
Referenda and Citizen Initiatives
Citizens of Germany can force referenda to initiate legislation. If enough people can be found, they can introduce a bill through a Volksinitiative. If that bill does not turn into a law directly (which is unlikely), they can go for a Volksbegehren where they try to collect enough signatures to be able to hold a Volksentscheid which means an actual binding referendum is held on a bill.
The exact differences between the terms are not that important. People will usually be talking about a Volksentscheid. Unfortunately since these work at the state level, you have to be a German national to even add your signature. Don’t sign one of these if you see them, your signature will be invalid and it will create more work for everybody. You can of course collect signatures from people who are eligible.
There are binding referenda at the local level (Bürgerbegehren/Bürgerentscheid) but the issues are usually quite marginal (a couple of trees fewer here or there) and rarely do these initiatives even reach the required number of votes.
A current example of a successful referendum has been the Radentscheid which aimed to promote better cycling infrastructure in Berlin. It gathered the required amount of signatures (some 100’000) very quickly and used that support to hand in their proposed legislation without going for the full referendum. The incoming city government accepted their proposals and is (very slowly) turning it into law.
There are lots of other smaller bodies of local government that you will notice if you keep an eye out on your local notice boards and leaflets. Things like neighborhood centers, city block redevelopment boards, school councils etc. These can be potentially easy to get into, will probably not be very demanding but they will have a direct impact on your environment.
- Run for a position on a small board. Even if you don’t (or don’t want to) win, the experience will teach you a lot.
Berlin has lots of semi-public organizations that promote something or represent a part of civil society. Most of these will have a public program consisting of events and publications.
The biggest of these are the foundations associated with every major political party: the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung for the SPD, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung for the Greens and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung for the Left.
- Go to an event of each of the political foundations listed above
- Visit the Netzpolitischer Abend to see Germans talk about the internet
Berlin of course is known for its activism. Every day in Berlin there are about a dozen official demonstrations. I can’t list all of it here but one good entry point is The Coalition.
- Walk along in a demonstration of your choice with a placard
- Participate in a demonstration against nazis
I will have missed lots of things and nuances in writing this. Suggestions are more than welcome.
Thanks Michelle Thorne and her activism residency for feedback and for prompting me to finish this piece.