The parliamentary petitions committee’s report to the Bundestag is an annual chance to gain insight into what ordinary Germans like and – more often – don’t about what their government does and doesn’t do. The number of petitions declined slightly from 2015, from 13,137 to 11,236. But the committee’s chairwoman warned against drawing any hasty conclusions from that fact.
“There are lots of possible reasons,” said Kersten Steinke of the Left Party told Bundestag deputies in Berlin on Wednesday. “I don’t think people are generally any more satisfied.”
There were some 400 fewer petitions concerning refugees last year, perhaps a reflection of the fact that fewer migrants arrived in Germany compared with 2015. Still, Steinicke related the story of a 14-year-old Somali girl, whose father was murdered and who was repeatedly raped after fleeing her homeland. The girl faced deportation to Italy – her first point of entry into the EU, but was allowed to remain in Germany.
It was a moving example of the power of petitions, an institution that brings together politicians from across the political spectrum for non-partisan causes and that goes back thousands of years in German society.
Millennia of requests and complaints
Every petition, regardless of whether it is signed by one person or tens of thousands, gets read and processed by a diligent crew of 12 to 15 reviewers. They may reject or approve a request, pass it along to the responsible ministry or instruct the petitioner how to get further help.
Only around six percent of petitions are directly successful, although the committee says it is able to offer assistance of various sorts to just under half of all petitioners.
Petitioning the government has history that goes back all the way to the medieval Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, in which subjects beseeched local or super-regional potentates in an attempt to secure justice for themselves. The Enlightenment strengthened the rights of individuals to make direct requests of governmental institutions, and those rights were later enshrined in the constitutions of both the Wilhelmine Empire and the Weimar Republic.
Nominally, those rights were preserved in Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, although petitioners risked being labeled “malcontents” and suffering sometimes draconian sanctions. Article 17 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, the basis of modern-day reunited Germany reads: “Everyone has the right to contact, individually or together with others, relevant ministries and the people’s representative government with requests and complaints.”
Today around one third of petitioners make their requests online, although many people choose to participate in non-governmental petitions hosted by organizations like Avaaz or Change.org rather than file their complaints directly with the government. Many of the speakers in the Bundestag on Wednesday said that this could also be a reason for the slight decline between 2015 and 2016.
From the banal to the fundamental
But despite the dip in numbers, parliamentarians across the political spectrum stressed the continuing importance of governmental petitions. Michael Vietz of the conservative CDU-CSU called the institution “the hotline between the people and the government.”
“It sounds so minor and banal, but it really isn’t,” Vietz told the Bundestag. “People in many countries don’t have this right.”
75 percent of the requests concern aspects, major and minor, of people’s daily lives. Among the petitions that could be considered banal were complaints about daylight savings time, parents riding their bikes next to the children on Germany’s sidewalks and automatic locks on taxi doors.
But one by one, the members of the committee related, with visible pride, more significant success stories of their work.
Steinke told of a law stipulating that minors who have lost one of their parents can no longer be stripped of coverage under that parent’s health insurance. The legislation was prompted by a petition filed all the way back in 2014 and passed along by the committee with a recommendation for action.
“This time I needed help,” said Social Democrat Markus Paschke, citing a grateful petitioner in another case. “It was really nice to see that I got it.”
Need for a better reputation
The petition committee is hardly the most prestigious body for politicians in the Bundestag. Indeed, it’s considered something a reservoir for well-meaning but insufficiently ambitious back-benchers. Social Democrat Corinna Rüffer took issue with the stereotype of the committee as Germany’s governmental “complaint box.”
“We’re all individuals who chose to do this because we’re interested in people,” Rüffer said.
Rüffer called upon her colleagues to do more to alert citizens about their right to file complaints and to assert their value of their work vis-à-vis their parliamentary colleagues.
“I want all the people who sit on these benches to know what is getting on the general populace’s case,” Rüffer said.
Kerstin Kassner of the Left Party said that more petitions should be discussed in open sessions of the Bundestag. Currently a petition needs to attract more than 50,000 signatures to get a public hearing in the German legislature. Perhaps that might itself be the subject of a petition some day.