Research on Federalism
Does Germany Still Need Provincial Parliaments?

In recent years, the German federal provinces have acquired new powers in the sphere of agricultural politics. How active has the legislature of provincial parliaments become in the face of these developments? A comparison by JULIA OPPAT and STEFAN EWERT

Translated by Adam Stead and Christine Crawford.

On the whole, provincial parliaments receive little attention. They are regarded as the losers of political developments over the past few decades. Provincial parliaments who were certain of their powers were transferred to the EU. However, within Germany, there was a strong impetus towards unified regulation of different political areas, which limited the provincial parliaments' room to manoeuvre.

While the provincial governments, via the Bundesrat, play an active role in political decision-making and contribute to federal legislation in the framework of ministerial gatherings (such as that of the ministers of culture), the sole task of parliamentarians in the provincial governments often consists of "waving through" these laws and attempting, with limited means, to oversee their implementation.

Just how legislative is the legislature of the provincial governments, if their only task is to execute federal laws?

Just how legislative is the legislature of the provincial governments, if their only task is to execute federal laws? Just how legislative is the legislature of the provincial governments, if their only task is to execute federal laws? Moving ahead, these different factors could culminate in a crisis of legitimacy within the German provincial parliamentary system. Declining voter participation in provincial elections, provides the first clear indication that things are moving in this direction.

Does Germany still need provincial parliaments? As early as the 1950s, critics such as Wilhelm Hennis propagated the abolition of the provincial parliamentary system. Defenders of provincial parliaments pointed out the following:

  1. Provincial governments remain (in accordance with provincial constitutions), the central sites of provincial legislation.

  2. Provincial governments should effectively attend to this responsibility in order to generate political competition within Germany for the best ideas.

  3. Contrary to the majority of public and political scientific opinion, examples can most definitely be found, in which provincial governments do precisely this.1

From this point of view, provincial governments can gain room for manoeuvre, above all, in new political areas, that among other things, have developed through the restoration of certain powers to the provinces and in which the lines of conflict do not run exactly along federal political party lines.The above points, enable provincial governments to gain room for manoeuvre, above all, in new political areas, that among other things, have developed through the restoration of certain powers to the provinces and in which the lines of conflict do not run exactly along federal political party lines.

Agricultural politics – or more precisely, the politics of developing rural land, represents one such political area. Known officially as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), this political area has been characterised since the 1950s, by high-level, unified European regulation. The CAP also continues to claim the most funding, from the perspective of the EU's budget. In the mid-2000s, however, the EU decided to divide its CAP into two "pillars". Whereas the first pillar (encompassing market and price politics), continues to be controlled and financed by the EU, the member-states of the second pillar (responsible for the politics of developing rural land), acquired room to manoeuvre in shaping this area. They also became co-financers of the corresponding programmes.

The fundamental goal of this partial "re-nationalisation" was to adequately account for the profound heterogeneity of rural communities. Within the Federal Republic of Germany, this basic idea was followed, in so far as the provinces acquired powers and have been charged since 2007 with the task of designing Rural Development Programmes (RDP) for their own region, each for a period of seven years.2 The provinces gained a new field of political responsibility, for which it was mandated federally that the programmes' development should take place according to the "parliamentary process specific to the provinces". This included a stipulation that the parliaments should deal with this topic.3

Taking into account our initial thoughts on the role of provincial parliaments in the Federal Republic, it is now useful to ask just how fully the provincial parliaments dedicated themselves to the aforementioned rural development programmes. The economic and social roles of rural communities in the German federal provinces are marked by a pronounced heterogeneity. The structures of rural areas differ greatly, so it may be presumed that the federal political parties exercise a relatively modest influence on this area of politics.

This supposition is confirmed by vast differences in the provinces' RDPs4, that emerged through empirical analysis. Were these programmes developed primarily by the executive arm of provincial government, that is, by the participating provincial ministries and their administrative apparatus? Alternatively, did the provincial parliaments seize the opportunity to contribute substantially to these programmes? In order to answer this question, we examined the plenary minutes of all the provincial parliaments between September 2005 and February 2007. It was during this period that the provinces were to design their rural area development programmes.5

Even if the German provincial parliaments focus, on the whole, on parliamentary work, rather than on parliamentary debate and the main focus of their work resides in working groups and committees, the plenary sessions reflect the main points of emphasis and topics in the provincial parliament's work. We examined the different ways provincial governments dealt with their plenary sessions with RDP (creating laws, question periods, reports or government information, motions and "Aktuelle Stunden") and the length of the corresponding debates. We quantified the latter, using the number of words spoken and an estimate of the length of time based on the number of words and the total length of the plenary session.

Differences in the Parliamentary Debates
The results indicate that the various provincial parliaments made very different use of their right – and their political responsibility, to deal with the creation of rural development programmes. Even though the creation of programme drafts was in the hands of the ministerial bureaucracy in each province, parliamentary discussion of these drafts differed greatly.

In Hesse and the Saarland there was no plenary activity relating to rural development programmes. However, in at least seven provinces there was parliamentary engagement with rural areas. This was carried out within the legislative process framework, albeit mostly, as part of the parliament's usual legislative activities.

In Lower Saxony, for instance, there were heated parliamentary debates and concrete suggestions for change. The Green opposition made concrete suggestions concerning the distribution of funds within the development programme. The advancement of rural areas appeared on the agenda a total of five times. This indicated the great significance placed on agriculture in this particular province.

Within individual provinces, such as Saxony, "Aktuelle Stunden" were held during which the opposition voiced its criticism of the provincial government's RDP development. Particular interest is placed on the fact that in Saxony-Anhalt, the ruling and opposition parties put forward a joint-motion supporting competitive agriculture. Additionally, in Schleswig-Holstein the provincial government voted unanimously to pass a motion put forward by the opposition Green Party, for the advancement of EU programmes in rural areas. These occurrences indicate that the political field does not actually run strictly along the lines of the different political parties, and therefore, provincial parliaments have latitude in taking regional particularities into account.

The plenary session debates, which in contrast to committee discussions, are published and offer the public an idea of the parliamentary agricultural-political debates and the parliament's involvement in the programme's creation. These differ greatly in length.

The provinces of Hesse and the Saarland did not conduct plenary debates concerning rural development programs. In Saxony, there was a total of more than three hours (193 minutes) of debate in the one and a half year long period during which the program was developed. There were similarly intense debates in the provincial governments in Brandenburg and Rheinland-Pfalz (181 and 174 minutes, respectively), whereas most provincial governments spent considerably less than two hours discussing different concepts for rural development.

A Propensity for Stripping Themselves of Power?
First the good news. It can at least be said that (almost) every province in the Federal Republic was actively involved in the political policy formation for the development of their province's rural areas. This followed requirements, stipulating that they must discuss this topic in parliament.

Moreover, a fifth of rural area parliamentary debates took place within the legislative process framework. However, the plenary session debates also indicate, that in several cases the opposition parties first had to use their means of questioning and "Aktuelle Stunden", to place the topic of rural development onto the parliament's agenda. The governing parties left the programme development to the ministerial administration. Comparison of the different provinces reveals that the degree of involvement of provincial governments differed dramatically. This clearly attests, at least in part, to a "certain propensity" among the provincial governments "for stripping themselves of power"6. Alongside the structural factors noted at the outset, this lead to their decreasing importance.

While competing ideas about the formation of rural development programmes were presented and discussed in certain provincial parliaments' plenary debates, this offered the public the opportunity to form a differentiated view of the spectrum of provincial politics. On the whole, programme development in other provinces took place with parliamentary majority approval, outside the provincial parliament. In such cases, others began the task of developing these new fields.

[1] Reutter, Werner: The Transfer of Power Hypothesis and the German Länder. In Need of Modification, in: Publius. The Journal of Federalism (36)2006, pp. 277-301.
[2] For an overview of the development of CAP and RDP cf. e.g.: Fährmann, Barbara; Grajewski, Regina; Koch, Birgit; Peter, Heike: Die Politik zur ländlichen Entwicklung im Rahmen der gemeinsamen Agrarpolitik, Schriftenreihe Europäisches Verwaltungsmanagement der Fachhochschule für Verwaltung und Rechtspflege Berlin, Berlin 2008; Grajewski, Regina: Die Programme zur Entwicklung ländlicher Räume in Deutschland im Vergleich, in: Tietz, Andreas (Ed.): Ländliche Entwicklungsprogramme 2007 bis 2013 in Deutschland im Vergleich – Finanzen, Schwerpunkte, Maßnahmen, Völkenrode/Braunschweig 2007, pp. 37-46.
[3] Bundesministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz: Nationaler Strategieplan der Bundesrepublik Deutschland für die Entwicklung ländlicher Räume 2007-2013, Berlin 2006, p. 57.
[4] Tietz 2007.
[5] The states Brandenburg and Berlin as well as Niedersachsen and Bremen each created a common RDP, so that a total of 14 parliaments were analyzed.
[6] Cf. Ewert, Stefan; Buchstein, Hubertus (2006): Landtag und Gesetzgebung, in: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Ed.): Politische Landeskunde Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Schwerin, pp. 88-105, hier: p. 88.


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