New German cabinet criticised for its lack of diversity

After months of arduous negotiations following September 2017’s federal elections, the new German government was sworn in on March 14.

Complex personnel choices

After the cornerstones of the coalition deal had been agreed upon in early February, the three participating parties – Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its conservative Bavarian sister party CSU, and the Social Democrats (SPD) proceeded to choose their personnel.

Cabinet appointments were bitterly contested in party headquarters in Berlin and Munich, as each of the three parties strove to satisfy its most important constituencies. The perhaps most important criterion to be respected was proportional representation in terms of regions: the Bavarian CSU had to ensure that rivalling Upper Bavarian and Franconian party wings were represented; the SPD had to privilege powerful regional party branches from North-Rhine Westphalia and Lower Saxony. In the CDU, Merkel also struggled to accommodate competing regional claims over the scarce number of ministries her party had managed to securre during the coalition talks.

Strong representation of women – but not of immigrants

The result is the most ‘female’ cabinet in German history, with 43.75 per cent of ministers being women.1 On other counts of diversity, however, the cabinet does not represent a step forward.

Most notably, only one of the men and women of ministerial rank possesses what in German political parlance is referred to as a ‘migration background’ – i.e. someone with at least one parent born outside of Germany: Minister of Justice Katarina Barley is the daughter of a British father and a German mother.

Lack of diversity in Parliament

Nor is the picture much better when it comes to Parliament: In the new Bundestag, only 57 out of 709 MPs ö or 8 per cent of parliamentarians – have a migration background. This compares to more than 20 per cent of the German population who have at least one parent born without German citizenship.2

Writing for the taz newspaper, journalist and writer Jagoda Marinić asserted that “as a woman I am of course happy about the women in the cabinet. But why do I only see the blond bourgeois girls of my high-school childhood?” She noted that “migrated Germans and their offspring have better things to do than to dream of blue eyes and of hair dyed blonde.”3

New State Minister for Migration, Refugees and Integration

Aydan Özoğuz, the 52-year-old State Minister for Migration, Refugees and Integration, had been the highest-ranking official in the previous government whose parents had had first-hand experience of migration. (Özoğuz herself was born in Hamburg, which has not spared her from attacks from the far right, whose leaders have called for her to be “dumped” in Anatolia.)

In the new government, the SPD politician Özoğuz has been replaced by Annette Widmann-Mauz from the CDU. Widmann-Mauz was catapulted to her new post largely due to the vagaries of internal party politics: The 51-year-old has a background in healthcare policy and is completely new to the portfolio of migration and ‘integration’.

Widmann-Mauz is also largely unknown to the public and has not, so far, been a model of rhetorical prowess. Hence, she will most likely not be able to constitute a corrective to Horst Seehofer, the new Interior and Homeland Minister. Since taking office, Seehofer has not only sparked controversy due to exclusionary remarks targeting Islam and Muslims; he has also made it clear that he will pursue a ‘security first’ approach vis-à-vis migrant populations.4

‘Immigrant’ = ‘integration’ specialist

Particularly the replacement of Özoğuz has been criticised as an indication for the cabinet’s lack of inclusivity towards immigrants and their descendants. Green Party politician Ali Baş echoed the call for greater diversity; yet he also noted that it was regrettable that politicians with Turkish- or Arabic-sounding names were perpetually confined to the field of ‘integration’ policy.5

This dynamic – visible at all levels of German policy-making – has as its implicit basis the assumption that all those whose name or physiognomy indicates ‘diversity’ are best shunted into departments and positions that allow them to deal with ‘people of their own kind’.

Aydan Özoğuz herself has called for new initiatives in order to insure the inclusion of migrated Germans in the political process. Yet the SPD politician expressed considerable scepticism as to whether such initiatives stood a chance of success in the present adverse political climate: Germany had been “thrown back several years” in terms of these inclusion efforts, she asserted.6

Integrating the East

Yet migrants are not the only group underrepresented in the cabinet. Other than Angela Merkel, only one member of the government hails from the former East of the country: Franziska Giffey, new Minister for Family Affairs, was born in the town of Frankfurt/Oder in the GDR. (She has spent most of her political life in the former West Berlin, however.)

The eastern regions still play little to no role in the internal structures of Germany’s major parties, as few men and women from the former GDR have ascended to top positions in the party hierarchy. (The one exception is Die Linke, a left-wing party that regroups parts of the successor organisation to East Germany’s governing Socialist Unity Party.)

Western republic “imported” to Berlin

Surveying the new cabinet, the Tagesspiegel newspaper observed that the old ‘Bonn Republic’ – named for West Germany’s capital – had simply been “imported” to Berlin after reunification, without much change in personnel or outlook.7

Contrary to what much of public parlance on ‘integration’ seems to imply, it is therefore not only ‘immigrants’ or their children whose participation in the German political landscape needs to be fostered. It is, coincidentally, in the underprivileged East where anti-establishment feeling is at fever pitch, fuelling the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD party.

Integrating the working classes

Beyond ethnicity and region, class is another important factor that limits the representativeness of the new cabinet. As Jagoda Marinić notes in her taz piece, the women in the cabinet arenot only blonde; they are also the grown-up versions of the bourgeois girls she had got to know in Gymnasium – the top-level German high-school preparing for entry to university.

German politics arguably used to offer better career paths for men and women from the working class. While in the first German Bundestag of 1949 only 45 per cent of MPs held a university degree, this figure has risen continuously, reaching more than 90 per cent in 2009. Similarly, while until recently cabinets boasted ministers who had come from apprenticeships or from labour union activism, by now all Ministers have attended university.8

To be sure, the number of Germans with a university degree has also increased over the past decades; yet it has only reached 30 per cent of the population. In particular, the heavy bias in favour of tertiary education again disadvantages immigrants and their children, who – due to their working class background – are underrepresented in the top tiers of the German educational sector.

Share Button