“The liberal and secular state lives in conditions that it cannot guarantee itself. This quote from former constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde sums up the vulnerability of democracy in a catchy phrase – a vulnerability that we in Eastern Europe are again painfully aware of: a living democracy doesn’t just need of a constitution, but also of a democratic culture. And this culture comprises a diverse discourse in which as many groups as possible have a say, bring their points of view, but also defend different interests. Without this diversity, there is no democracy.
Political parties are important players in this discourse. However, according to the Basic Law, they do not have a monopoly, but rather “participate in the political decision-making process of the people”. In addition to political parties, other social groups play an important role in the formation of opinions, in particular associations of committed citizens, for whom the term “civil society” has become essential. New ideas or concerns in particular usually take some time before they can find a voice in established parties. Civil society organizations can help address this lack of representation.
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Ulf Buermeyer is a judge at the Berlin Regional Court, but has been on leave since October 2020 and is the full-time president of the Society for Freedom Rights (GFF).
(Photo: Daniel Moßbrucker / oh)
Non-governmental organizations such as the Society for Freedom Rights (GFF), in which the author is involved, are primarily funded by donations and contributions from individuals. Donors can claim their donations for tax purposes if the organization is recognized as a charity. Deductibility is an important incentive to aid because it can cut the net burden on donors by almost half, depending on the personal income tax rate.
Businesses can claim public relations fees as a business expense
In addition, the status of association serves to ensure a level playing field in the competition of opinions between companies and individuals: companies can claim their public relations costs as professional expenses – whether they are (also) useful. to the general public or that they are used simply to maximize profits. Individuals, on the other hand, only benefit from tax advantages if they make a donation to a charity. In order to achieve at least a rudimentary balance, the status of association plays a key role.
The increasingly restrictive tendency of financial administration to recognize charitable status is therefore all the more dangerous for democratic culture. Following the decision of the Federal Finance Court in the Attac affair, an organization critical for globalization, certain tax services now require a de facto total absence of a political profile. For example, a cultural center in the Swabian town of Ludwigsburg threatens to lose its association status because right-wing extremists are not welcome there.
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Vivian Kube is a fully qualified lawyer and has been with GFF since September 2020.
(Photo: Agata Szymanska-Medina / oh)
In addition to an overly strict ban on political activities, the regulatory concept of the tax code poses a problem: so far it has only seen a small catalog of charitable purposes – from promoting religion to chess. . For a new concern to be recognized, the legislator must first add it to the catalog. Unsurprisingly, the social reality list is sometimes decades behind schedule. Freifunk, that is, public WiFi hotspots operated by enthusiasts, was particularly important in the 2000s, when the volume of data in mobile phone contracts was still scarce. However, Freifunk wasn’t added to the catalog until December 2020 – at least 15 years too late.
Faced with these shortcomings and many more, the GFF has developed a contemporary charitable statute bill, a “law to strengthen democracy”. We want to show clearly how the democratic culture in Germany as a whole can be strengthened and vivified: in particular by means of an amendment of the tax code, the public utility law should be adapted in the future in order to guarantee the economic foundations and the democratic participation of civil society.
The Object Catalog needs an urgent update
Our project is based on three main elements: an expansion of the catalog of charitable purposes by certain elements currently missing and a general clause that will stand the test of time; a legal guarantee of the democratic engagement of non-profit organizations in order to give them more space in the debate on political issues as long as they are not involved in party politics; as well as clear rules for more financial transparency in civil society in order to reveal the material influences on nonprofits and to prevent the rules on party donations from being bypassed.
An “update” of the catalog of purposes is our central requirement: on the one hand, we should include purposes whose current absence is difficult to understand, such as the promotion of fundamental and human rights, the commitment to social justice. and engagement against racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of group hostility. Even the press, however fundamental it is to democracy, has yet to be recognized as a charity. On the other hand, the catalog of purposes should be opened to future developments by a general clause so that the legislator does not always have to act first.
Our bill also contains detailed proposals for a vibrant civil society. Companies currently have no effective legal protection against deprivation of association status if they are mentioned in a report for the protection of the constitution: national intelligence services normally do not disclose their sources. Of course, an organization that is genuinely unconstitutional should not be promoted. But this question cannot be left to the non-transparent secret services alone. If an organization is accused of being unconstitutional, then it must be able to have that charge examined by a court.
The GFF therefore submits its bill for public discussion. With our proposal, we hope that the next federal government will put reform of the charitable law on its agenda. Solving the most pressing problems facing civil society would not be magic.