Ralf Fücks: "For me, the Foundation opened a window upon the world"

On 23 Juni 2017 Ralf Fücks was given an official farewell after being chairman of Heinrich Böll Foundation for over 20 years. With Sergey Lagodinsky and Eva van de Rakt he spoke about his history and political developments.

Ralf Fücks 23 czerwca 2017 w Fundacji im. Heinricha Bölla
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Za chwilę Ralf Fücks przekaże zieloną pałeczkę swojej następczyni Ellen Ueberschär

Sergey Lagodinsky: In 1996 you became president of the Foundation, following, as we just discovered, a very active and eventful political career.
Did it take you long to decide? And why did you decide to work for the Foundation?

If my memory serves me right, it was Lukas Beckmann who called me and asked whether I’d like to have the job. This was at a time, when the three previous green-affiliated foundations (plus their umbrella organisation) were about to merge.

To me, this offer came at the right time: The three-party coalition government in the State of Bremen had just collapsed, and I was somewhat sore because of that, and on the lookout for new challenges. The politics of ideas has always attracted me, and consequently the new role I was offered appealed to me.

We didn’t start out with a blank slate, of course – there were the traditions developed by the Foundation’s precursors, as well as their staff. It all began with some tough negotiations about redundancy packages, restructuring, and a new focus for the organisation. Still, those early years had a romantic aura. We were something like a start-up company with lots of enthusiasm and energy. I hope that this spirit of our beginnings is still alive and well today, despite the fact that we have become an established institution.

Eva van de Rakt: Some of the policy priorities that typify your time with the Foundation are the transition towards a Green Economy, Israel, the transatlantic relationship, and Eastern Europe. One of the issues closest to your heart is a version of green politics that is free and democratic. You’ve always emphasised that environmentalism has to go hand in hand with a liberal vision of modernity. When did it occur to you that it was crucial to defend this alliance between environmentalism and democracy?

For this, I believe, two experiences were key: First, my time as Senator for the Environment and Urban Development in the State of Bremen and all the very different types of confrontations that went with it – conflicts with environmental associations, as well as with the local chamber of commerce. This taught me that environmental policies can't be decreed by edict; they require political majorities and wide-ranging alliances. In the end, the three-party coalition in Bremen failed because we were unable to come up with workable compromises.

A second epiphany occurred when I reread what is the holy book of early environmentalism, the report, dating to 1972, by Denis Meadow and his team to the Club of Rome, famously titled  “The Limits to Growth.” I discovered that the whole book has a very authoritarian tenor and is all about control of three different aspects – control of production, control of consumption, and control of reproduction. The whole thing has obvious overtones of environmental totalitarianism.

Thus, it is no coincidence that Jørgen Randers, at the time one of Meadow’s collaborators, today supports the “Chinese Model.” He doesn’t think that a liberal democracy will be able to bring about the kind of self-denial, which, according to him, will be necessary to avoid environmental disaster. This is the logical outcome, if environmentalism is exclusively framed in terms of constraints, that is, as restrictions, sacrifice, and prohibitions. The result is re-education and authoritarianism. Free and democratic environmental policy, on the other hand, has to boost innovation and develop a new narrative of progress. This is the thinking that underpins my book Green Growth, Smart Growth: A New Approach to Economics, Innovation and the Environment.

Sergey Lagodinsky: In 1995, when serving as Bremen’s Senator for the Environment and Urban Development, you said in an interview that it is possible to ‘reconcile environmentalism with economic policy in a smart way.’ For you, the most important resource of a Green Economy is to liberate creativity and innovation. In a way, you’ve thus recast the narrative of progress from an environmental point of view. This is a very upbeat outlook. What is the basis for such optimism?

One can view the history of humankind as nothing but a never-ending sequence of war, violence, crises, and catastrophes – and, in a way, this is true. However, despite all these depredations and suffering there also exists a different narrative, one that is marked by great inventions, by intellectual, material, and by political progress, by emancipation and liberty. I believe in humanity’s ability to find ways out of the dead ends it has created. Human creativity, that is, the wealth of our inventions, is the greatest productive force of them all.

Without such an “anthropological optimism” it is impossible to design good policy. Mind you, this is no naïve belief in progress, no teleological view of history as a promise of salvation. This is another lesson history taught us – things can go wrong.

Consequently, we need an economic and political order that encourages innovation, the agency of individuals and, at the same time, a considerable degree of reflection and the ability to amend.

The combination of democracy, rule of law, and market economy represents such a system – the best system we’ve come up with so far. It combines political and economic freedoms with a network of checks and balances that counteract abuses of power and are meant to preserve liberty for all.

Eva van de Rakt: With your forceful international presence you have managed to bring into focus the Foundation’s political profile as a global network. Our partners cherish the vigour you bring to our values – this is a quality that has helped to make our local activities much more credible. The optimistic mood of the 1990s, which came about with the fall of the Iron Curtain, has greatly shaped our activities in Central and Eastern Europe. What are your memories of the period?

My memories are rather ambivalent. Back then I could definitely feel the spirit of liberty – this euphoric moment, when people from East and West sat on top off the Berlin Wall.

At the time, I was one of the spokespersons of the Green Party’s executive board. When I heard the news about the opening of the borders, I jumped in my car and drove from Bremen straight to Berlin.

However, the Green Party was unable to react adequately to those historic events. There were strong reservations against reunification, no trust in the civic and democratic nature of the West German state, and visions that East Germany may become a harbinger of a “third way,” a way beyond capitalism and socialism.

All of this resulted in the Green Party’s “famous” slogan for the December 1990 “reunification elections,” a slogan that went, “Everybody’s talking about Germany, we’re talking about the climate.” At the time, we’d already discovered the issue of climate change and made it one of the points of our platform. In a way this was visionary, however, at the time, it was also completely misguided. The result was that the West German Green Party gained only 4.8% of the vote, thus dropping out of parliament, while the East German Greens won eight seats in the new all-German parliament.

In the years that followed, we began to grasp how great a gift the democratic reunification of Europe was. Back in 1990, I should have remembered my initial attitude towards the freedom movements of Central and Eastern Europe. In 1968, when I still went to school, I was glued to the radio, following the events of the Prague Spring, and later, I supported Solidarność in Poland.

Within in the Green Party, I was among those – along with Petra Kelly, Lukas Beckmann, Elisabeth Weber, and others – who, during the 1980s, supported dissidents in Eastern Europe. Those are traditions that, up to the present day, still inform our activities in these countries.

Eva van de Rakt: Today, some of the countries bordering on the European Union are governed by authoritarian regimes. Such regimes have declared war on open society, though, even within the EU, liberal democracy is under threat. What does all of this imply for the European activities of the Foundation?

First of all, this means that the issue of democracy has, once again, taken centre stage. We should not assume that the victory of liberal democracy is irreversible – it isn’t, neither in the East, nor in the West.

Although the most recent elections – especially those in France – may signal that the wave on anti-liberalism has passed its peak, this is no reason to sound the all clear. For this, the social dislocations behind the crisis of liberal democracy are too severe – the fear of downward social mobility, the feeling of a loss of control in face of globalisation, the rejection of the mass immigration of people from other continents, and the rampant pessimism regarding future developments.

What this means is, in order to win the struggle for democracy we will have to come up with answers for such challenges – answers that will build trust in the ability of democratic politics to deal with crises.

One thing we can take away from Macron is that it isn’t just about defending the status quo. What we need is a new narrative of progress that combines cosmopolitanism with diversity and security. Here, the keyword has to be “change with security.” What we need is a vision for economic reform in Europe, a “Green New Deal,” including investment into environmental modernisation and education for all.

Last but not least, over the last few years we’ve done a lot to develop a transborder political discourse throughout Europe. The current situation makes this ever more urgent. The Foundation itself is a pan-European network stretching from Paris and Brussels all the way to Kiev and Istanbul. The Foundation is a key player when it comes to the creation of a European political public – and we need to further expand that role.

Sergey Lagodinsky: When you went to Israel last week, you described your visit there as a “sentimental journey.” You have many ties to Israel. In your welcoming address on occasion of the 2016 Israeli Days of Literature you said, “Instead of making hasty judgments and posing as morally superior – something that is especially unbecoming for Germans – we need to listen, inquire, and talk to one another.” For many in Germany, such an attitude is all but obvious. How did you get to this point of view – and is this something we can still sustain today?

It is true that today we are witnessing a peculiar reversal in our attitude towards Israel, in that it has gone from a contrite sense of guilt to moralistic pedantry – as if we were all in the know about what Israel should and shouldn’t do. Here, I advise restraint, and not only because of our history, but also because conditions in the Middle East are very different from what we experience in our Central European comfort zone.

To me, the relationship with Israel is still inextricably linked to the Holocaust. This started already when I went to school and began to look into Nazi Germany and the Shoah. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, when Nasser said that all Jews should be driven into the sea, I supported the Israelis with all my heart.

Later, during my phase on the extreme left, there was a break. Large parts of the radical left perceived Israel solely from an anti-imperialist point of view as a colonial power and an “outpost of Western imperialism.” This is a very murky chapter.

My position today is something I would describe as “critical solidarity.” Of course one may – and should – criticise Israel’s occupation policy or the increasingly illiberal tendencies in Israeli politics. However, we should do this based on a fundamental empathy – and without any finger-wagging.

On my good-bye tour of Israel, Naomi Chazan, the grande dame of Israeli civil society, called me “a true friend of Israel.” This touched me deeply. To be a friend of Israel does not preclude defending the rights of Palestinians – quite the contrary is true. However, we should not act as if nothing but the good will of Israel were needed to solve the Middle East crisis overnight. Remember, we Europeans aren’t even able to resolve the conflict in Cyprus.

Sergey Lagodinsky: For you, the transatlantic relationship is a political as well as a personal issue. Today, the transatlantic relationship is in crisis and democracy in the US is under siege. You have done a lot to improve the relationship with the United States. So, today, at the end of your presidency of the Foundation, you must be deeply disappointed about the election of Trump, right?

Well, it’s kind of pointless to tell the Americans, ‘we’re deeply disappointed in you for electing such a guy as president – for that, we’re really very cross with you!” But, having said that, you’re right that the election of Trump is a major setback for transatlantic relations. Domestically, I believe, US democracy with all its checks and balances will be strong enough to put Trump in his place. However, as far as foreign policy is concerned, this presidency has already been very damaging indeed.

The one good thing about Trump is that he has been a wake-up call for all democrats on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, we witness an impressive counter movement in the US and greater alertness in Europe. I side with President Obama’s former European policy adviser Charles Kupchan, who, last week, at our Foreign Policy Conference, declared: “Don’t worry – we’ll be back. It won’t be easy, though, and up until then you Europeans will have to keep the flag flying.”

So, there is no turning the back on the transatlantic alliance. Europe, however, will have to take on greater international responsibility, including with regard to a more active security policy. It is a thing of the past that we badmouth the US while, at the same time, ducking away behind its wide back.

Eva van de Rakt: As Foundation President, and over the course of 21 years, you built up the two pillars of our programmes and activities, ecology and democracy, with the help of many collaborators. This double stance has shaped the Foundation – and it will continue to shape it in the future. We would like to thank you very much for your commitment and for your confidence. One final question: Looking back, what does the Foundation mean to you?

Oh dear, this question comes way too early. All I can tell you right now is that it was the best thing that happened to me in my professional and political life. With this, I mean especially you – all of my colleagues and collaborators at the Foundation and our partners around the world. All of this represents a huge human and intellectual wealth.

For me, the Foundation opened a window upon the world, and, over the course of 21 years, it has been a continuous studium generale for me. For this, I am very very thankful.

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.


Photos of the celebratory to give Ralf Fücks an official farewell on 23 June 2017


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