Following British Prime Minister Tony Blair's surprise decision to call a referendum on the EU constitution, pressure is growing in France and Germany to follow suit.
The future of Europe may be put up to a public vote
This German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sought to nip debate about a German referendum on the EU constitution in the bud, saying that Germany's approval process via a parliamentary vote was "equally as democratic" as putting the issue to the people in a popular vote.
Schröder has consistently been a staunch supporter of the drive to create a constitution that will form the ideological basis of the soon-to-be enlarged European Union. He recently described EU expansion as an" unbelieveably historic opportunity" that shouldn't be missed because of "small-mindedness."
In its present form, the German constitution doesn't allow for referenda. Before taking office, Schröder's government vowed to change this, and was critical of predecessor Helmut Kohl's aversion to letting the people decide on important issues. Despite calls from some opposition parties to allow referenda, there doesn't appear to be the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of parliament to amend Germany's constitution.
Still, the decision in Britain to put the EU constitution to the people has proved a powerful catalyst in Germany, both on the question of a national referendum, as well as a pan-European poll.
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel put forward the idea of an EU-wide referendum during a talk show on German television. He criticised Blair's decision, and said that individual national referenda aren't "clever" because they tend to get tied up with domestic politics.
"That's a big risk because domestic politics could very easily get mixed up with a fundamental European question and that is always dangerous," Schüssel said. "The solution may really be that after the ratification by national parliaments ... that we then jointly on one day in the whole of Europe put the question to the European population. Then no one can say it was done over the heads of the people."
German Finance Minister Hans Eichel.
This idea found resonance with German Finance Minister Hans Eichel (photo). "I could imagine the whole of Europe holding a referendum," Eichel told public broadcaster ZDF. "I don't think it's sensible if individual countries do it and then one gets…nationalist tendencies that can pit people against each other."
Eichel's comments echoed those of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who earlier rejected calls for a referendum on the constitution, calling it a "populist trap."
However, a survey conducted by pollster Forsa on Thursday revealed that more than two thirds of the German population want a referendum on the EU constitution. Forsa, which conducted the poll on behalf of television news station N24, found that 69 percent supported a referendum, while only 25 percent felt it was unnecessary. East Germans proved to be proportionally more in favor of a referendum than West Germans.
A similar mood prevails in neighboring France, where French President Jacques Chirac is also under pressure to put the EU constitution to a referendum. "In Britain, referendums are rare. In France, they are the rule. I don't see how we can deprive people of the right to have a say. It would be a denial of democracy," Socialist Pierre Moscovici, a former European affairs minister, told Liberation newspaper. During is re-election campaign last year, Chirac also pledged to hold a referendum on the issue.
This week, Chirac's closest advisor, Alain Juppé, said the French president was currently resisting the referendum pressure. "When it comes to choosing [between putting it through parliament and putting it to a public poll] we would like to take a concerted approach with our partners and in particular with Germany," he said.