Strengthening democracy, protecting Europe
How has the German Constitution developed from the Weimar Republic via the Bonn Republic to the political system of today? Anniversaries of constitutions are usually introspective affairs, during which academics make observations regarding the state, society and the political situation from an insider perspective.
An international DAAD alumni conference held at the Bocconi University in Milan in June 2019 on the occasion of a double anniversary (100 years since the Weimar Constitution and 70 years of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany) demonstrated how productive it is to provide cross-border, inter-disciplinary analysis of constitutional developments.
Globalisation and populism – pressing issues
Sandro M. Moraldo explained that the goal was to develop “new perspectives” rather than a “ritualised remembrance”. Moraldo is Chairman of the "Alumni DAAD Italien" association and organised the meeting together with Professor Giuseppe Franco Ferrari. Ferrari teaches Law at Bocconi University, which hosted the event. More than one hundred people took part in the event. They included Italian and German practitioners and academic scholars of Constitutional Law, Politics, History and Languages.
The participants analysed the development and significance of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany and subjected it to (self-)critical scrutiny. There was a broad scope of reflection with regard to constitutional law and politics, addressing issues including Weimar influences, changes to the federal order, changes to party systems and Europe's political weight. The pressing issues of globalisation, climate change, migration and populism also occupy the thoughts of students and practitioners of constitutional law
In his welcoming address, Mario Monti highlighted the often very close link between constitutional law and politics by citing the example of the dispute over the European Banking Union. Monti is President of Bocconi University and is better known abroad as a former European Commissioner and as the former Prime Minister of Italy. He recalled that the political decision to create a European Financial Supervisory Authority was ultimately heard by the German Federal Constitutional Court, the “guardian of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany”.
At the conference, which was entitled “Germany 2019. Between European Integration and National Sovereignty. The Challenges Ahead for German Constitutionalism 100 Years Since the Weimar Constitution and 70 Years Since the Basic Law”, participants explored the value and impact of the two constitutions. The term “sovereignty” in the title stood for the European phenomenon of populism and nationalism, for which the Italians have coined the word “sovranismo”.
“In recent years, we have seen the traditional parties in crisis and the populist movements gaining momentum,” said Professor Giuseppe Franco Ferrari, who teaches Law at Bocconi University. He commented that the Weimar Constitution has remained a central point of reference in the academic examination of populist and nationalist movements – not only with regard to the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany. “Weimar is the key to understanding the European constitutional debate,” he said
With the Weimar Constitution, a parliamentary democracy was established for the first time in Germany. Its terrible failure during the course of the National Socialists' assumption of power in 1933 is a collective reminder of what can happen if there is a lack of societal support for basic principles such as the separation of power and if the constitutional order proves too weak to combat the enemies of democracy.
Ferrari also made the point that Weimar is constantly referenced in current debates. “Whenever democracy seems to be in crisis and democratic institutions erode, the experiences of the Weimar Republic are reawakened in peoples’ consciousness,” he said.
Historical experience of totalitarianism
Professor Jörg Luther of the Università del Piemonte Orientale in Alessandria described Italian interest in the development of the German constitution as part of a “learning process” marked by historical experience of totalitarianism. Luther, who completed his state examinations and doctorate in Germany before continuing his career in law at Italian universities, described the result of this process as “a common post-authoritarian European culture of constitutionalism with colourful contrasts”.
The differences between German and Italian understandings of a constitution are clearly visible in areas including fundamental rights. In Italy, human dignity also means social dignity, “which today must be protected from starvation wages and economic abuse of power,” explained Luther. He went on to say that while in German constitutional jurisprudence the concept of property has been extended, in Italy the protection of fundamental social rights has a unique tradition, citing examples including healthcare and old-age pension schemes.
The protection of democracy is also assessed and handled differently. “Italy excludes only neo-fascism and allowed Euro-communism,” said Luther. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, on the other hand, continued Ferrari, makes it possible to ban any unconstitutional party, whether it is on the extreme left- or right-wing. Ferrari regards Germany as better armed against threats to democracy than Italy in terms of constitutional law.
According to the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, a new head of government must also be elected when a government is overthrown. The aim of this is to prevent political instability. Nevertheless, the established political system in Germany has also fallen into crisis. “Even though the situations in Germany and Italy are not identical, the confrontation with populist and nationalist parties demonstrates the necessity for reform,” said Ferrari.
Ferrari believes that securing democracy, the rule of law and social balance is not the sole task of politicians and that societal support for the values and principles enshrined in the respective constitutions is also necessary. He is however concerned that it is becoming increasingly difficult to build bridges in the face of nationalistic isolationist tendencies. Luther identifies continued deficits in knowledge and understanding with particular regard to the relationship between Italy and Germany. “Stereotypes have again crept in,” he remarked
Alumni DAAD Italia
With almost 4,000 alumni, Italy has one of the highest numbers of former DAAD scholarship holders among European countries. The "Alumni DAAD Italien" association, which organised the conference on “The Challenges Ahead for German Constitutionalism 100 Years Since the Weimar Constitution and 70 Years Since the Basic Law”, is however comparatively young in terms of the rich tradition of academic exchange between Germany and Italy. The association was founded in Rome in September 2016 and currently has 110 members. The Chairman is Professor Sandro M. Moraldo, who grew up in Heidelberg and now teaches German Literature, Language and Culture at the University of Bologna. The association is planning an alumni conference at the Magna Græcia University of Catanzaro entitled “Longevity and ageing: medical, social and political challenges for Europe” in November 2019.