It takes time and energy to run for political office. Financial rewards are only available to candidates who succeed and take up positions as elected representatives. For those who are self-employed or work for a private company, a career in politics often comes with high risks: the duration of a political mandate is limited, but a return to one’s former profession after the end of public service is all but guaranteed.
In Germany, one in four members of parliament hold a legal degree. Teachers and civil servants are second and third on the list of professions. In the French National Assembly, the situation is nearly the same. Even in the European Parliament we find a overrepresentation of jurists and teachers. If we take into account the positions the Members held before being elected to parliament, the gap in professional backgrounds between politicians and their constituents is even more apparent: most German members of parliament used to work as full-time officials for political parties, associations or union, or were employed by the country’s civil service.
We might take the position that a politician’s profession is of secondary importance. We might argue that political representatives don’t have to comprise a cross-section of society. Instead, what matters is that they represent the interests of the population – and that doesn’t necessarily require them to be representative of society in its entirety. Maybe some professions are even preferable for politicians, and we should welcome the fact that they are over-represented in parliament. After all, representation is a skill that must be acquired, and the training of a lawyer, a political scientist, or a teacher, followed by a career in organizations which represent one constituency or another, might provide future politicians with the experience they need. A lawyer represents his or her clients regardless of whether their lives mirror their own.
But there’s a catch: politics is not only about ensuring constant representation, but also about the ways in which this process unfolds. Parliaments are tasked with crafting political solutions to societal challenges. Two questions must be answered: which problems demand political solutions and should be taken up by parliament in the first place? And what is the basic structure of political solutions, i.e. what approaches are taken by parliamentarians?
In continental Europe, those two questions have been answered in the same manner for the past few years. One, any questions that arouses public opinion is regarded as a political problem which requires a political solution. Indoor smoking bans, the prohibition of hotlines that charge callers while they are kept on hold, or the debate of assisted suicide are recent examples. Parliamentarians seem incapable of rejecting public problems as inherently apolitical and unsuited for parliamentary remedies. Two, political solutions in Europe are often defined as the most detailed regulatory approach to the largest number of possible cases. Parliamentary debates result in bills, which are voted on and become laws. The representative organs of the state and their bureaucratic machines draft extensive manuals on the basis of these laws, which cover all imaginable cases and which can simply be applied in a procedural and automatic manner without an individual assessment of a case.
This political practice resonates well with the professional training of many parliamentarians. Academic training is supposed to imbue students with problem-solving skills. But lawyers solve problems differently than engineers, entrepreneurs, or doctors.
Yet the crafting of comprehensive regulatory frameworks and their enshrinement in laws by a group of lawyers and teachers isn’t an inherent feature of parliamentary democracy. A look across the Atlantic shows how different parliaments can be: In the Canadian House of Commons, the number of lawyers, managers, teachers, consultants and farmers is roughly equal. A pluralism of professional background fosters creativity in the search for political solutions.
But there’s no reason to be optimistic that the composition of European parliaments might change in the near future. This requires a reform of political structures that would go far beyond the realm of parliamentary affairs and would have to empower citizens to take political affairs into their own hands. It would mean that we no longer rely on the decisions of (of course hard-working and well-intentioned) representatives whose socialization and professional training have not endowed them with the set of skills that appears necessary to solve today’s problems.
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