Bundestag discussed Citizens' Assembly recommendations

14. March 2024

On 14 March 2024, the German Bundestag debated the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly "Nutrition in Transition". Reactions to the democratic instrument and its citizens' report were mixed.

On 20 February 2024, the Citizens' Assembly on Food Policy presented its recommendations to Bundestag President Bärbel Bas and the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag. The proposals include free lunches in kindergartens and schools, healthy food without VAT and better animal welfare labelling. The citizens' assembly was the first mini-public officially set up by the Bundestag.

"Democracy must continue to develop"

At the beginning of the debate, Leon Eckert, member of the Bundestag for the Greens, gave impressions from his constituency. According to him, he personally receives a lot of encouragement, but "those at the top are somehow disconnected". Democracy must seek approval and continue to develop. "The Citizens' Assembly is an instrument to promote this innovation," says Eckert. The citizens' assembly was a test run and a trial to see how mini-publics could bring added value to parliament.

"It is already clear that we have succeeded in initiating a well-founded substantive debate," says the member of the Bundestag's Citizens' Assembly rapporteur group, in which all parliamentary groups are represented. The recommendations are worth discussing. The Citizens' Assembly does better what previous citizen participation has often failed to do. It better represents the people who might otherwise not have attended: "Those who would otherwise be kept away can discuss, that is the great opportunity of the Citizens' Assembly." A self-confident representative democracy does not have to hide from the opinions of the citizens.

Doubts about citizens' assemblies

For the CDU/CSU, MP Philipp Amthor recalled that the Bundestag had set up the Citizens' Assembly against the votes of his parliamentary group. Nevertheless, the CDU/CSU parliamentary group had participated constructively and discussed the assembly's proposals in the parliamentary group's specialised groups. Amthor thanked the assembly participants for their work, but expressed doubts about the suitability of Citizens' Assemblies to complement parliamentary work.

"Our parliamentary system of government is under great pressure. Under pressure to de-parliamentarise," warned Amthor. Members of the government would not take a position on key foreign policy issues in parliament, but in school classes. Political responsibilities would be outsourced to expert commissions and to the international level.

"Representation is not a question of chance"

"I don't believe that this can be treated by the President of the Bundestag trying to put together a well-legitimised body in a (...) citizens' lottery," Amthor doubts that popular sovereignty is characterised by elections and votes and not by random selection. "Representation in our country is not a question of chance, but of parliamentary procedures," says the CDU/CSU parliamentary group's spokesperson for state organisation and modernisation and representative of the parliamentary group in the Citizens' Assembly rapporteur group.

The Bundestag would be weakened if the impression was given that the will of the citizens or even the necessary expertise could only be brought into parliament through new instruments. Citizens' Assembly recommendations should not be treated any differently than submissions from other citizens. "We are not closing ourselves off to this instrument for the future. The decisive factor is that we have a fundamental understanding of parliamentary democracy in common," said Amthor.

"We take these recommendations seriously"

For SPD MP Marianne Schieder, the Citizens' Assembly is both a conclusion, a mission and a new departure. A successful citizens' report with concrete proposals for policy-makers has been presented. "We are taking these recommendations seriously and are looking at them intensively in Parliament," said Schieder. The recommendations for action are impressive. The Citizens' Assembly has done an excellent job of addressing a very broad social issue. "Nevertheless, the Citizens' Assembly does not replace our parliamentary mandate, nor does it jeopardise it or weaken it," says Schieder.

The Citizens' Assembly has also contributed to a better understanding of parliamentary work among those involved. The Citizens' Assembly rapporteur group, which Schieder chairs, is already working on the second Citizens' Assembly of the Bundestag. "I am fairly confident that we will be able to set it up before the parliamentary summer break," explained the SPD MP.

"Committed, critical and passionate"

AfD MP Peter Felser called the work of the Citizens' Assembly "thoroughly commendable". He had been able to see for himself at a meeting of the Citizens' Assembly in Berlin that the selected citizens were "committed, critical and very passionate". The topic was also important. More than 70 per cent of western civilisation's diseases are diet-related. It is absolutely right to start here. However, he pleaded for every citizen to become a citizens' councillor through federal referendums.

On behalf of the FDP, its member of parliament Dr Gero Clemens Hocker made it clear that the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly on Nutrition was a compromise that had been reached in the governing coalition. "We are convinced that our parliamentary representative democracy is capable of bringing about solutions," said the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Food and Agriculture. There is no better system.

"Straighten your back for the system"

Decisions sometimes take a little longer because compromises have to be found and precisely because people and associations are involved. "I think it would be wrong to give the impression that too little citizen participation is a weakness of our democracy. I believe that, especially in these difficult times, we are obliged to keep our backs to the system that has granted us peace, freedom and prosperity in the centre of Europe for over 70 years," explained Hocker.

Left-wing MP Gökay Akbulut joined the other speakers in thanking the Citizens' Assembly participants for their months of voluntary work. From a left-wing perspective, she would have liked to see much more radical recommendations, but all perspectives were represented in the Citizens' Assembly and that was a good thing. "Citizens' assemblies can help to break down barriers to thought in the parliamentary arena. They should complement and strengthen parliamentary democracy," said the MP, who represents her parliamentary group on the Subcommittee on Civic Engagement.

"Implement these demands!"

Amira Mohamed Ali from the Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) finds the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Nutrition very sensible. "Implement these demands," she appealed to the federal government. It is the task of the coalition government to ensure that everyone in Germany can afford good food, "the proposals of the Citizens' Assembly show the way".

48-year-old Biggy Kewitsch from Quedlinburg in Saxony-Anhalt was one of the members of the Citizens' Assembly and followed the Bundestag debate from the public gallery. "There was no real discussion about our results," Kewitsch told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. However, she was pleased that individual CDU MPs also discussed their results seriously. Her assembly colleague Margarethe Bingel says: "The CDU disappointed me, especially Mr Amthor." The debate on children's lunches had gone horribly. The two women became friends through the Citizens' Assembly. They would highly recommend other mini-publics to politicians.

"It was no longer about the topic at all"

Citizens' Assembly participant Karen Bömelburg from Alveslohe in Schleswig-Holstein also watched the discussion online, the first time she had ever followed a debate in the Bundestag. Her verdict: "It was no longer about the topic, the individual proposals, but about the exchange of blows between the parties. I think it's just politics when the parties or the MPs are always lashing out at each other and criticising the other," Bömelburg told the news magazine "Der Spiegel".

For people who are not already politically engaged, Bömelburg believes that political parties are an inhibition threshold. "It helped many participants that we were non-partisan in the Citizens' Assembly, that we were all in the same boat and didn't know which way the discussion would go. We just knew that we wanted to work constructively and deliver something sensible. (...) We never had such a heated discussion as (...) in the Bundestag."

Referral to committees

Following the conclusion of the plenary debate, the Citizens' Assembly's report was referred to the Committee on Food and Agriculture and, in a consultative capacity, to the Committee on Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, the Committee on Health and the Committee on Climate Action and Energy. On 24 April 2024, the Committee on Food and Agriculture intends to hold an initial meeting with some of the participants in the Citizens' Assembly to discuss their Citizens' Report. This will also include a discussion on what other formats could be used to discuss the individual recommendations, for example in the form of public hearings.

Following the parliamentary deliberations, the Bundestag will decide how to deal with the recommendations of the mini-public.

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