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BERLIN – The small parties of the new German government have big donors to thank for helping them gain power.
Free Democrats (FDP) and environmentalists have benefited the most from donations of more than € 50,000 to German parties this year, according to data collected by POLITICO.
These donations reached a record total of over € 12million in 2021, sparking new concerns about the role of wealthy individuals and businesses in politics as they sought to influence the September election and shape the era. post-Merkel.
The FDP has collected more than 4.3 million euros in donations in this category while the Greens have received some 3.4 million euros, just ahead of the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to party statements in the German parliament.
Donations over € 50,000 give instant insight into how major donors are trying to shape German policy, as they must be declared immediately and released by parliament.
However, they do not tell the whole story of party finances, as small donations do not become public until much later, in the annual accounts. In addition, parties tend to receive a larger share of their income from state funding and membership fees.
The Social Democrats under the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example, have received only € 175,000 in significant donations. But they traditionally receive a larger share of their income from state funding and membership fees than other major parties.
The Greens push for donations
Donors from the two small parties in the new coalition, which takes office on Wednesday, were motivated by the prospect of the Greens in government, but in very different ways. Those who wanted more ambitious climate policies donated to the Greens; those who wanted to prevent such policies funded the FDP.
In February of this year, Antonis Schwarz, an impact investor and philanthropist who inherited millions from the sale of his family’s pharmaceutical business, donated half a million euros to the Greens.
“This donation has been one of the most important things I have done in my life,” said Schwarz, 33. said POLITICO.
While the total sums involved may seem small compared to countries like the United States, Schwarz noted that a single donor can make a big difference to a German party.
“In Germany, a wealthy individual can finance a significant portion of the budget of an election campaign,” he said. “I saw here an opportunity to have a particularly significant impact. “
Some 8 million euros of the 16 million euros of the Greens’ campaign budget came from donations, according to a spokesperson for the party.
Schwarz said he felt the publicity around his donation had also helped convince others to follow suit, such as software developer Moritz Schmidt, who donated € 1 million to the Greens. in April, apparently thanks to the profits he allegedly made on bitcoin sales.
Steven Schuurman, one of the richest entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, broke all records 19 days before the election by donating 1.25 million euros to the Greens, citing climate change as his main driver of motivation. “The result of the German federal elections also affects the Dutch, the Belgians, the French or the Poles, in fact the whole world,” Schuurman told the German newspaper Welt.
In contrast, Georg Kofler, an investor and former boss of TV channels ProSieben and Premiere, donated € 750,000 to the FDP in April, telling Handelsblatt newspaper that the party best represented businessmen and that he wanted to “prevent the Greens from being part of the government”.
The attractiveness of the FDP to high net worth individuals and businesses is reflected in the fact that it received 32 separate donations over € 50,000 in 2021. The Greens received 11 donations in this category.
Both parties won many more big donations in 2021 than in the last general election year, 2017, when the FDP received around € 2 million and the Greens only € 543,000.
FDP donors in 2021 included discount department store chain Woolworth GmbH and its sister company TEDI, who each donated € 100,000 to the party.
“What particularly impresses us is that the FDP wants [tax] relief for low-income people and represents those in marginal employment like no other party, ”said a spokesperson for the companies.
A spokesperson for the FDP said it was not possible to say how much its campaign was funded by donations, as the budget was set before the party knew how much it would receive from donors.
“Our party’s income comes from various sources. This includes, but is not limited to, state grants, membership fees and donations. The expenses of the electoral campaign are financed by these revenues ”, declared the spokesperson.
Transparency activists say the record year for big donations should highlight what donors aim to gain, even as parties and donors vigorously deny any connection between financial contributions and influence or access .
“Donations of this magnitude – especially when they come from the business world – are, of course, always linked to an expectation,” said Timo Lange, an activist with the German NGO Lobbycontrol.
Even though pay-to-play is legally prohibited, “it can be observed that those who make large donations have a better chance of presenting their concerns, of securing a meeting with the party leadership,” Lange said.
He noted that large donations also raised important questions about the fairness of the election itself. “This leads to a distortion of the electoral campaign in favor of those who can afford it”, said Lange.
Campaigners and election experts say German party funding rules do not apply well internationally. They find that there is no cap on donations, that annual financial reports are released too late, and that there is not enough information on fundraising during campaigns.
“Germany has extremely lax regulations when it comes to party donations,” said Léa Briand of Abgeordnetenwatch, a German watchdog NGO that scrutinizes the work of lawmakers. “As long as companies can donate, there will always be scandals. It is democratically extremely harmful.
A loophole often cited by activists is that only donations above € 50,000 need to be made public immediately, while contributions below this threshold but above € 10,000 are published in annual reports more than a year later. .
When these lower-level donations are reported, the public can only see that the money was given to a particular party, not which local branch, making it more difficult to find a possible match.
And, of course, there are easy ways to avoid having to report donations. Outgoing Health Minister Jens Spahn of the Christian Democrats has been criticized for having dinner last year with entrepreneurs who were asked to donate € 9,999 – one euro below the reporting threshold – to his local branch of the party to help him in his campaign for re-election to the Bundestag.
The new government of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP – known as the “traffic light coalition” because of the colors of the parties involved – has pledged to make some changes to the party funding rules.
In their coalition agreement, they agreed to lower the threshold for large donations that must be made public immediately from € 50,000 to € 35,000. They also plan to lower the threshold for donations that must be published in annual reports from € 10,000 to € 7,500.
Transparency watchers have given the proposals a mixed reception, arguing that although they represent progress, the thresholds are still too high. They also note that there are no plans to put a cap on donations – despite the SPD and Greens campaigning for years to put a cap.
“It will be interesting to observe whether a traffic light coalition – in which two out of three parties have received the most from large donations – will be able to bring about real reforms,” he said. Briand d’Abgeordnetenwatch.
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