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Opinion: Dishonest at Heart

France's decision to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution has ignited debate over a similar vote in Germany. But those who want a referendum should consider what would happen if the constitution were rejected.


Let the people or the politicians decide?

Those who support the notion of a referendum on the EU Constitution in Germany are not just members of the opposition in parliament. They also come from the ranks of the ruling Social Democrats and Greens. The government has already rejected the idea, and isn't prepared to discuss the constitutional changes that would be necessary in order for Germany to hold a referendum.

It is rather a mixed-up world. Those parties that, in the past, tried to prevent the introduction of referendums in Germany are suddenly the most vehement supporters of a referendum on the EU constitution. And the heads of the SPD and the Greens, who typically place enormous value on being in touch with the people, are against it.

That the current debate has to do with the issue itself -- the EU Constitution -- is highly doubtful. It's much more likely that the opposition is enjoying the opportunity to put pressure on the red-green government, in the knowledge that the majority of Germans are in favor of a referendum. Those politicians against a vote have to face accusations that they're scared of their own citizens -- the majority of whom, as surveys show, would vote Yes given the chance. And should the public suddenly vote No, that too could be chalked up to failure on the part of the government.

Certainly, a referendum would have a desirable side-effect: Politicians would be forced to do some convincing public relations work for the EU Constitution. That the majority of Germans look favorably on the new document has more to do with the general EU-friendly atmosphere than their awareness of what it entails. In the past, there's been more hot air than concrete arguments surrounding the issue. But does a country really need to hold a referendum to do what should have already been done?

The Irish example

And is a referendum really the best way to explain the purpose of the EU Constitution to the people? Can such a contract -- and the constitution is nothing other than a contract -- ever really be made understandable for the public? Those who look at the example of the Irish referendum two years ago would have their doubts. The slogans for and against the Nice Treaty were so stripped of sense, that the referendum developed into a competition between EU supporters and nationalists. In the end, it wasn't rational arguments that decided the question, rather the popularity of the Yes-voting prime minister.

And let's not ignore the fact that not everyone screaming for a referendum really wants one. Some politicians don't want any binding popular votes. For them, it's enough to simply go through the motions of asking the people -- and then, in the end, let parliament decide matters. Then there are those who want to alter the German constitution only enough to allow a referendum in this particular case, as if to say, we'll trust the people to decide on the EU constitution, but nothing else. Those who generally distrust referendums should just say so, and not try to fake interest in public opinion.

The consequences of rejection

Referendums do make sense, in cases where citizens with their No votes can really have an effect, where their rejection has consequences. But what would a No to the EU Constitution mean? Would Germany opt out of the EU? Would there be new negotiations about the constitution's text?

No, there wouldn't. Because that's what the Irish example has taught us. After the Nice Treaty failed to make it through the first referendum, it was simply brought back to the vote a second time, without so much as a comma being changed. Fortunately, the Irish said Yes the second time round. Fortunately, because had they again said No, they would've probably been asked to vote on the same text a third, fourth, or even fifth time. Those who demand a referendum should also be forced to say what would happen when the public says No. But on that point, most people prefer to remain silent.

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