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A Referendum for Germany After All?

While the verdict is still out on whether Berlin will call for a referendum on the EU Constitution, some politicians are calling for legislation that will allow for plebiscites on citizen's initiatives.


Should the people decide?

Three quarters of German voters say they want the chance to vote on the EU Constitution, despite the fact that their country's own constitution does not allow for such referendums. However, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens are not easily persuaded by popular demands.

The conservative opposition is also not completely unanimous in supporting a referendum. Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats Union (CDU), is against changing German law to hold a plebiscite on the EU Constitution. But her colleague Edmund Stoiber from the Christian Social Union (CSU) has come out strong in favor of the issue.

A change in German law

Such an important decision on the future of Europe must rest in the hands of the people, not the politicians, Stoiber has said. On Sunday he called on all EU heads of state and government to agree on a European-wide referendum on the constitution. In Germany, he has suggested that the government view Bavaria, where he is state premier, as the role model for introducing a federal law that would allow for holding popular votes.

Stoiber said Article 23 of the Basic Law (Germany's constitution), which stipulates Germany's position with regard to the EU, needs to be expanded to allow the federal government to call for a referendum whenever the legal basis of the European Union is changed, in this case through the introduction of its first-ever constitution. Changing the law would require new legislation which in turn has to be backed by two-thirds of the parliament, the Bundestag, and the Bundesrat, which represents state interests.

Stoiber cautioned that referendums should only be called for when essential changes are introduced to the constitutional basis of the EU.

Liberal and Green support

In an uncanny turn of alliances, the Greens and the neo-liberal Free Democrats Party have joined forces in supporting the introduction of new legislation to allow for national referendums. Only a few days ago the FDP announced that it would introduce legislation in September calling for a referendum on the EU Constitution.

Speaking with the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle said he had written to other parties asking that the issue be put to a free vote in parliament. "If we could agree to that, a two-thirds majority is feasible," he was quoted as saying.

The Greens have also signaled a willingness to move forward on similar legislation that would allow for referendums on issues that start as citizen's initiatives. Green parliamentarian Josef Winkler said in a statement on Saturday that members in the ruling coalition would soon put forth such a proposal.

Noting the difference between a referendum that starts out as a private citizen's initiative and those coming from the government, Winkler said, "referendums initiated by parliament are not foreseen."

In his statement, Winkler reiterated that the Greens on a whole, unlike their de facto leader and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, favored a Europe-wide referendum on the EU Constitution rather than separate votes at the national level.

A big risk

A recent poll by the Forsa institute found three out of four Germans supported holding a referendum on the constitution. A report in Die Welt newspaper on Saturday also said 34 constitutional lawyers had signed their names on a paper arguing a referendum was not only possible but should be held.

But Chancellor Schröder has resisted calls to follow Britain and hold a popular vote. He has said there is unlikely to be the required two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to change Germany's constitution to allow a referendum. There is also the risk that if a referendum is held, the EU Constitution could be rejected, thereby nullifying it across the entire bloc and throwing the EU back to the drawing board.

Critics, however, point to the fact that the risk is not so high as in England, for example, where Tony Blair is taking a big gamble in putting the question to his countrymen, who are far more euroskeptic than the Germans.

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