Interview with Bärbel Bas

President of the German Bundestag

“We will live more sustainable, digital lives, in our homes and in business!”

She likes soccer, rides a motorcycle – and is the woman with the highestranking position in Germany. As a child, Bärbel Bas learned to go without. As president of the Bundestag, she insists that “Upward social mobility shouldn't be the exception!”

Bärbel Bas, 54, president of the German Bundestag since October 26, 2021.
© Thomas Trutschel/photothek/dpa
Bärbel Bas, 54, president of the German Bundestag since October 26, 2021.

Ms. Bas, we’re coming to the end of a difficult year. What gives you hope for 2023?

There is a strong sense of solidarity in Germany. It’s much stronger than we often believe. Our general public is very engaged. And our country is proving itself capable of action. Even when it comes to making difficult decisions and saying goodbye to old certainties, such as in security, defense or energy policy. Our skilled workforce is extremely well trained and we have an innovative industry sector – partly because we are so well positioned in terms of applied research. And yes, I am talking about the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft specifically here. 

How can research help us overcome challenges?

We obviously need new technologies for the energy transition. And when it comes to combating climate change, research plays a major role. We’re all currently dealing with the war in Ukraine. The most important thing in this regard is determined, political leadership. When it comes to defending ourselves against cyberattacks or safeguarding critical infrastructure, research plays an important role. Before I was elected president of the Bundestag, as deputy chair of my SPD parliamentary group, I was responsible for the areas of health, petitions, education and research. So of course I know that even outside of the current crises, research is becoming ever more important. The Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS in my constituency of Duisburg is doing outstanding work.

What is more dangerous for our society: the crises, or people’s fear of the crises?

We know fear is a bad advisor. It paralyzes us and leads us to make mistakes. Optimism gives us the power to solves problems and overcome crises. That especially applies with regard to Ukraine. Putin’s propaganda is deliberately trying to spread fear and divide Ukraine’s supporters. We can’t let ourselves be intimidated.

On German Unity Day, you said: “Our country has the skills to drive major transformations.” What skills are these – and how will our country transform in the next ten years?

In ten years’ time, we will be living more sustainable, digital lives, in our homes, in business and in travel. I am confident that we will handle this transformation well. In my speech on German Unity Day, I looked back on the upheaval in our recent past: both the decades of structural change in the area I come from, the Ruhr region, and the upheaval that the East Germans overcame after reunification. These two cases show that our country is capable of a lot — when we pull together and support those that are hit particularly badly by the upheaval. We have so many brilliant minds, and so much creativity, flexibility and imagination in Germany!

Which future-oriented field would you like to see Fraunhofer focus on?

As president of the Bundestag, I must refrain from making public recommendations on matters that fall under the responsibility of the education minister. But since you brought up my speech on German Unity Day, I will say this: Due to my work in eastern Germany, I know the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft will soon be opening a new location in Lusatia. I think that’s exactly the right approach, given the requirement for a structural transformation. As far as I’m aware, at that new location, they will be carrying out research into topics surrounding energy, among other things. Of course, there is also a lot of work being done in that field at the other Fraunhofer institutes. It’s clear to see that’s exactly the type of research we urgently need at the moment.

In his final speech as president of the Bundestag, your predecessor, Wolfgang Schäuble, said: “Politics is about more than just scientific knowledge – and after all, scientific knowledge is certainly not the same as a democratic majority.” Will science be more important in the future? And how can research help you as the representative of the democratic majority to take action more quickly?

Yes, I believe research will become increasingly important for our society, and its significance has become more visible during the pandemic. Wolfgang Schäuble was correct — scientific evidence cannot replace the struggle for a political majority. It’s all about weighing up each side, and about values and interests. Parliament and the government need to use scientific findings to help them make, and take responsibility for, political decisions. During the pandemic, we’ve been able to clearly see what that looks like in practice. As part of the political process, scientific findings on the coronavirus had to be weighed up against factors such as citizens’ rights to freedom. That’s where political responsibility comes into play.

You visited Ukraine in the spring, spending 12 hours on a night train, sometimes even wearing a helmet and protective vest; what was that like for you as a woman born in 1968, part of the post-war generation?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a time of peace. As I’m sure many people of my generation did, I took peace for granted. For me, war in Europe was unthinkable. Then in Kyiv, Bucha and Irpin, I understood what it actually means to reach a turning point in history. War has returned to Europe.

You were on the ground in Bucha and Irpin, two locations of possible war crimes carried out by Russian soldiers. Has this encounter with death changed your perspective?

Yes, this visit really moved me. I’ll never forget what I saw in Bucha and Irpin. It reminded me once again that we must resolutely stand by Ukraine.

You describe yourself as a pacifist. Can continually sending more weapons bring peace?

The war in Ukraine has brought about a turning point in my own mind. When you’re talking about a brutal attack that violates international law and human rights, weapons are indispensable for self-defense. Putin is not prepared to enter into any serious negotiations. We have to face up to this bitter reality. The most recent missile attacks on Ukrainian cities — on civilians and non-military targets! — have shown that we must support the Ukrainian people so they can fight back and protect themselves. That’s why it was so important to quickly provide a modern air defense system.

You’re only the third female president of the Bundestag, while there have been eleven men. Do we need gender quotas for women?

It is still mostly men who assign positions. Unfortunately, it’s been shown in the past that they only look for women when they’re obliged to meet a quota. That’s why we need quotas. For many years now, the proportion of women in the Bundestag has remained around a third. We can’t accept that any longer. Better representation of women is one subject being addressed by a commission that the Bundestag has set up to reform electoral law. As president of the Bundestag, I cannot preempt the work of the commission. But I haven’t made any secret of what I want personally. It’s high time for all parties to create candidate lists with an equal gender balance. I very much hope that they’ll find ways of fulfilling this requirement that comply with the constitution. Incidentally, we don’t only need equal representation in politics, but in other areas as well. I’m certain that the research sector can benefit from that too.

You’ve had a meteoric rise in your career. What were the greatest challenges for you? What obstacles were put in your way, and what does our education system need to make it easier for children to progress?

After my older brother failed high school and dropped out, it was considered inconceivable for me, a girl, to go to high school, let alone graduate – at least from my teachers’ and parents’ perspectives. So that meant my only option was to find a good vocational training course. Nobody showed me any alternatives, or helped me to pursue them. It’s still that way today for a lot of teenagers whose parents didn’t graduate high school. Since my vocational training, I have met so many people who believed in me, encouraged me and offered me opportunities. Others are not so lucky. We need more targeted support to help overcome social prejudices and barriers – regardless of a person’s social class, migrant background or gender. There are still few women in technology-related fields. That’s detrimental to us all. We need to stop pigeonholing people. It shouldn’t be unusual to see someone progress – that should be possible for anyone and everyone. Our education system can definitely do more to counter existing inequalities. That needs to change. Of course, money is a factor here. Education must be free and easily accessible to anyone and everyone.

You’ve been speaking up more and more often, especially to call for more protection for the more vulnerable members of German society. How have your own life experiences helped you better understand peoples’ concerns?

During my childhood, I learned what it’s like to go without a lot of things. For a long time now, this has been an everyday experience for too many people. Now they’re scared they might not even be able to afford the basic necessities. Dramatic changes like these can leave a mark that lasts a lifetime. Not everyone has the strength or the means to get back on their feet all by themselves. In times of crisis, we must do everything possible to prevent anyone being left behind.

How has your view of the country changed now that you are no longer “one of us down here” but “one of them up there?”

We are all shaped by our own background. For this reason, I certainly don’t see myself as “one of them up there.” At the same time, of course I know that’s how many people perceive me. I’m also very conscious that I have now joined the ranks of the privileged in our country. When I hear expressions like “you people up there” or “you Berlin types,” it worries me. This distance is not good for our democracy. That’s why I support the concept of citizens’ assemblies. This is a new way for people to participate, whereby randomly selected citizens from all walks of life, and with the widest possible range of backgrounds, discuss a political problem and then present their recommendations to the Bundestag. I believe that this format can reduce the perceived distance between parliament and the people. For me, it’s also very important that I spend as much time as possible at home with the people of Duisburg. On the soccer field, at street festivals, in the community gardens, in the local bar or on visits to local businesses. Those are places where I can talk to people on equal terms and without barriers. Having this closeness with our citizens is very important to me.

You used to play soccer for KBC Duisburg, where current national trainer Martina Voss-Tecklenburg was a teammate of yours. What was she like as a player?

I had the opportunity to play alongside her twice. I saw that as a great honor – especially since I wasn’t in top form at the time, to be honest. I only have good memories of Martina Voss-Tecklenburg. I enjoy thinking back on those games, and these days I am delighted to see her successes and remember our encounters on the field.

You always played on the left wing on the field. What did you learn from soccer that you were able to bring to politics?

Perseverance, determination and, above all, team spirit and taking pleasure in what I do. Win together, lose together. Of course, in politics you sometimes have to assert your position against others, but there’s got to be a sense of solidarity, whether on the field or in parliament.

 You drive a Harley Davidson Low Rider S.Why does this motorcycle appeal to you – and what would it take for an electric vehicle to pique your interest?

To be honest, I do like to feel the horsepower when riding my Harley. On the other hand, e-cars can now imitate a classic motor. You asked me earlier about where I would like the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft to direct its focus. If you could develop something in that area, I might be convinced to try an e-motorcycle.

What do you hope people will say about Bundestag President Bas at the end of her period of office?

Ask me again in three years’ time.

What will Bärbel’s friends say about her?

She’s still the same Bärbel we’ve always known.


Fraunhofer magazine

Title: Our energy

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