Sabine and Daniel Röder call for Europeans to get involved

As nationalist and anti-Europe voices gain strength, the Röders organize pro-Europe demonstrations that encourage unity and political participation.

Isabelle De Pommereau
Sabine and Daniel Röder started a pro-Europe grassroots initiative called Pulse of Europe, which has held public rallies. It now stretches across 21 European countries and about 100 cities.

On a recent spring evening seven residents of Dresden, once known as “Venice on the Elbe,” brainstorm the kind of European Union they want to live in. Should it have a carbon tax? A common fund for Europe’s unemployed? The debate is heated, but friendly, with pros and cons tossed about far into the night. 

Blocks away, anti-migrant demonstrators have completed their weekly march against what they call the Islamization of Europe. Nationalist voices like theirs are expecting big gains in the European Parliament elections May 23-26. And that’s why the seven residents, brainstorming and debating at one of their homes, are sending a countermessage – about mending, not trashing, the EU. 

“We won’t let nationalists destroy it,” says Heike Graf, one of the participants that night. 

The residents’ get-together is part of a pro-Europe grassroots initiative called Pulse of Europe. The initiative was begun in Germany in late 2016 by Daniel and Sabine Röder, and it now stretches across 21 European countries and about 100 cities. 

Pulse of Europe bills itself as a nonpartisan movement marshaling residents’ support for a strong, united Europe and the common values it stands for. It has held public rallies, with as many as 80,000 Europeans – from the Netherlands to Ireland to Portugal – turning out ahead of the French elections in the spring of 2017. More recently, it has also organized other events such as poetry slams and “house parliaments,” the latter of which describes the gathering in Dresden. Ahead of the May elections, a key Pulse of Europe aim has been to get out the vote.

The EU, which was born out of the ashes of war and fascism to safeguard peace and democracy, has seen its luster wane amid charges it’s more about regulating incandescent lightbulbs and the size of cucumbers than about ensuring the welfare of its citizens. Critics point to the Continent’s migrant crisis in particular, saying the EU hasn’t managed to solve it.

But “Daniel and Sabine Röder give us hope that Europe is not a lost cause, that ordinary folks can do something to save it,” Christian Nürnberger, an independent political author in Mainz, Germany, said in March. That’s when the Röders received the Erich Fromm Prize for promoting a “true, democratic Europe that secures peace and guarantees individual freedom, justice and legal security.” In fact, with the Pulse of Europe rallies, the anti-migrant marchers suddenly “didn’t have the streets for themselves,” Mr. Nürnberger added.

The past not so distant anymore

Until the Brexit referendum in 2016, the Röders had been typical parents, busy juggling work and their children’s lives. Neither had ever taken part in protest movements. To them, peace and freedom felt as natural as breathing. Fascism and war were part of a distant past. 

But in Frankfurt, where both worked as lawyers, old stories flooded back as politicians with nationalist, anti-Europe agendas made inroads everywhere from Britain to Italy to Poland.

It made Mr. Röder think about his grandfather’s gruesome war accounts. Also, he had grown up in a small West German village near the border with East Germany, where American patrols securing the border from potential Soviet aggression had impressed him.

As the nationalist and anti-Europe sentiments gained ground, “people were genuinely worried that there could be a chance of war,” Mr. Röder says. 

And with the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, who has called the EU a “foe,” “outcomes we’d deemed impossible became reality, and both times it was because people reacted too late,” Mr. Röder says.

So the Röders emailed their friends and colleagues: Would they rally in downtown Frankfurt that Sunday to show support for Europe? The 200 people who turned out showed that “people wanted and needed more,” Ms. Röder recalls. 

At some point later Ms. Graf, the Dresden resident who took part in the house parliament, learned about Pulse of Europe through a television appearance the Röders made. In that interview, Mr. Röder said that although many Europeans had become skeptical about the way the EU worked, the vast majority espoused the European project. After two years of letting anti-migrant marchers grab headlines, “we have to show that we are the majority,” Ms. Röder concurred. 

“That’s it!” Ms. Graf recalls telling herself. 

The Röders’ message reached her at a time when the rise of nationalist sentiments had paralyzed her. In her region, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was on its way to becoming the strongest force, and nationalism was bubbling up elsewhere. 

It hadn’t been long that the EU and its possibilities had opened themselves to her. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, she grasped what it meant to be able to work and travel freely, and she saw how EU funds helped refurbish old buildings neglected by decades of communism. The EU, in fact, is what helped save the lace factory that had employed her family for generations. 

The post-reunification years had been tough and the EU had its problems, but the EU meant no more dictatorships. Yet now, Ms. Graf wondered, were nationalist leaders with simple slogans destroying it all?

So she called the Röders to set up a Pulse of Europe rally in Dresden. In March 2017, some 1,300 residents swarmed the square around the Frauenkirche Dresden (Church of Our Lady).

In Hungary, useful conversations

Today, hundreds of miles away in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, Klara Landwehr hopes her own Pulse of Europe activities will motivate her fellow citizens to vote this month. At stake, she says, is saving a union that she sees as “my safety net against war, for democracy and the rule of law.” It’s a safety net that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been gradually shredding, she says.

She stumbled upon a Pulse of Europe rally in Munich and worked to bring the movement to Budapest. Lately she’s been using the house parliament model.

Hosting debate for small groups in her home has helped “people see how difficult it is for politicians to find the right answers for everybody, and that things aren’t black and white,” Ms. Landwehr says. She’s grateful to the Röders for giving Hungarians opportunities to engage in necessary and nuanced conversations.

Over in Frankfurt, where Pulse of Europe got its start, the Röders held a rally on a recent Sunday. “Go out and vote and bring your friends with you,” Mr. Röder tells the crowd. “Vote whatever you want, but vote Europe!” 

His hands gesture toward the informational booths of political parties he’s invited, from the center-right Christian Democratic Union to the Left Party to The Greens. Pulse of Europe helps “you get informed about what parties have to offer for Europe,” he says, and how parties can help improve the EU. But one party he has not invited is the AfD because “they say they want a different Europe, but they are about division, destruction, hatred, and people have to see that.” 

Near the stage, Frankfurt resident Gabriele Schmötzer gives Mr. Röder enthusiastic applause. Born in the last days of World War II, she wasn’t somebody to take to the streets, “but I’ve been here from day one,” she says, her eyes moist. 

The Röders are her idols. Why? 

“If Europe breaks apart, we lose everything.” 

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