How Germany′s national minorities are represented in politics | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW / German News

Every lawmaker in the German Bundestag has the backing of a party machine: a large network of staff, administrators, spokespeople and — of course — many fellow parliamentarians. It gives MPs a sense of belonging, a political home.

Every lawmaker? Well, not quite. Stefan Seidler is one of those exceptions to the rule. The 42-year-old hails from Germany’s far north, from Flensburg, the third-largest city in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, which shares a border with Denmark.

He’s full of enthusiasm for the reception he has enjoyed since he won his seat in the Bundestag last September. “Everybody has been really warm and helped me to feel at home,” he said. “That goes for the Bundestag’s administrative staff, but also for members of rival parliamentary groups, the other MPs. I don’t in any way feel as though I’m having to fend for myself. There are people in much more elevated positions than mine. And maybe there are times when they feel far more isolated than I do.”

Stefan Seidler during his speech in the Bundestag plenary chamber

Seidler gave his first speech in the Bundestag in December

Bundestag’s only representative of a national minority

Seidler’s special position in the Bundestag reflects an aspect of political life that is little known outside Germany. By law, there are four different recognized national minorities in the country.

Some 50,000 people in the northern part of the state of Schleswig-Holstein see themselves as Danes. They speak Danish and they send their children to Danish kindergartens and schools. Then there are the Frisians, on Germany’s North Sea coast, in Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Also, the Sorbs, an ethnic group of around 60,000 mainly living in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg. And Germany’s Sinti and Roma communities make up an estimated 70,000 people, mainly living in some of the country’s largest cities.

Map of Germany's far north

The key milestone in postwar relations between Germany and Denmark were the Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations of 1955, which opened the way for mutual understanding following the bitter experiences that Denmark had during Germany’s wartime invasion. The declarations set down that political representatives of national minorities on either side of the border were to be exempt from the 5% political threshold — the minimum share of the vote required to win a seat in elections.

For many years, the South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW) regularly stood for election to the Schleswig-Holstein regional assembly. The party already had a Bundestag MP for a time shortly after the war, between 1949 and 1953. But last year, it once again decided to put forward a candidate in the national election.

But the minorities’ seat in the new German parliament was no easy win, with Seidler having to win the full number of votes needed to win a regular seat. Depending on the turnout on the day, that meant winning between 33,000 and 38,000 votes.

Seidler comfortably exceeded that target — a victory that means he is now entitled to have four staff members, two in Berlin and two more in his constituency office in Flensburg.

A group of people on horseback in black suits and top hats, holding red banners

The Sorbs are a minority based in Germany’s southeast

“In the first instance, the SSW represents the Danish and Frisian minorities. However, we’re firmly committed to ensuring that minorities across Germany enjoy equal opportunities,” he said. In other words: Seidler views himself as a voice for the Sinti and Roma and the Sorbs, who are not represented in the same way in the Bundestag. And, on January 20, the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism, he laid flowers at the Sinti and Roma Memorial, which is located close to the Bundestag building in Berlin.

History shared, history suffered

Both Seidler and the SSW party, with a membership of around 3,600, are at pains to point out that their aim is not to reopen old wounds or stir up resentment. The northern territory of Schleswig did once belong to Denmark, but that was centuries ago.

Seidler said his priority is to respect and explore the nuances of culture, language and diversity. He has already been putting out feelers to lawmakers in other parties who are eager to promote the northern dialect known as Plattdeutsch, or Low German.

“I’ve got good contacts to all the national minorities: the Danes, the Frisians, the Sorbs and the Sinti and Roma. As well as to German minorities outside the country,” he said. “There are a lot of people, and not just here in Germany, who are happy to have somebody spending so much time reminding people what minorities are really all about.”

Focus on energy, mobility in the north

Seidler is focusing his efforts on the Bundestag’s Internal Affairs Committee, where he has a guaranteed right both to address the committee and put forward motions. And he has ambitious plans — not just for the Danes, but for Schleswig-Holstein as a whole. And among the most controversial issues in his part of the country are energy, especially wind power.

“The people of the north are paying the highest electricity prices, although we’ve done all we can to provide the rest of Germany with green electricity,” he pointed out.

Another of Seidler’s top priorities is to get things moving in ensuring that the notorious north is no longer cut off from the rest of the German economy. The problem: Schleswig-Holstein has just 22 projects listed in the national government’s investment fund for transport projects through to 2030, compared with 325 projects in the same period in the southern state of Bavaria.

But Seidler insists, it’s not about saying ‘Make Schleswig-Holstein great again!’ “All we want is a fair share of the cake. We’ve had enough of being sold short again and again.”

The sun rises over a series of wind turbines on the coast in Schleswig-Holstein

Schleswig-Holstein’s 3,000 wind turbines supply electricity to the rest of the country

Look carefully at the political spectrum, and you’ll discover that the SSW is a centrist party, perhaps just left of center. It has long been viewed as a force to be reckoned with in Schleswig-Holstein’s regional parliament in the state capital, Kiel. Indeed, between 2012 and 2017, it was part of a three-party regional coalition government formed together with the center-left Social Democrats and the environmentalist Greens. The SSW saw party member Anke Spoorendonk took over as state minister for justice, culture and European affairs.

Scandinavian pragmatism

Seidler has already delivered his first speech to the Bundestag, on the same day in December that Olaf Scholz was voted in as Germany’s new chancellor. “When I arrived at the Bundestag that morning, I was feeling pretty nervous, especially when I listened to what the others who went before I had to say,” he said. “But I said to myself: ‘Anything they can do, I can do, too. After all: they’re only human!”

Seidler might now have a guaranteed right to air his views, but his speaking time is limited. Though for him, that’s not a problem. “Don’t forget, I’m from the north. So it’s in my nature to get to the point. We like to do things that way, too,” he said.

Seidler is aiming to bring a little more Scandinavian pragmatism and calm to proceedings in the Bundestag. But he’s in little doubt that there will be times in the years to come when his job might feel like a very lonely struggle.

This article was originally written in German

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