On Friday the German parliament hears debate on holding a referendum on the EU Constitution. Regardless of the outcome, a small town in western Germany is already planning to hold its own plebiscite.
Watch out Berlin, here comes Strempt
A small village in the hilly Eifel region, about an hour’s car drive west of the former German capital, Bonn, is getting ready for a big day on June 13. The 800 people entitled to vote in Strempt have been called upon not only to cast their ballots for a candidate running for the European Parliament. As the only community in Germany, the town has been singled out to vote on the future constitution of the European Union.
Even though the governments of the EU countries are still disputing the final details of the document, the people of Strempt are keenly reading up on the issue, says village head, Wulf-Dietrich Simon. "Probably no other place, at least not in Germany, will know so much about the Constitution by June 13," he says.
"Every person here in Strempt can have a copy of it if they want. We've also worked out a summary listing ten reasons for and ten against it. The political parties in the Bundestag (Germany's parliament) have also added their summaries," Simon explains with a bit of pride in his hometown.
Part of the reason Strempt was chosen for the special vote is because none of the big parties governs in the town; instead an independent association of citizens runs things. It's this non-traditional makeup of the town council which attracted the attention of the organization "More Democracy," which is clamoring for a nationwide referendum on the EU Constitution and came up with the idea of holding the vote in Strempt.
"It's not about saying, 'I like it, but I want paragraph 10 or whatever changed.' That won't work," Simon says, adding the polling is an all or nothing vote. "I think it makes sense when such a document is done for people to say, 'yes, I'm with it,' or 'no, this is not for me."
Small town with a big voice
Although the outcome in the village election will have no effect on national policy, Simon hopes his neighbors' opinion will be heard all the way in Berlin. He's convinced that a clear majority of Germans share his view on the importance of holding a referendum. Opinion polls conducted in late April found that 65 to 74 percent of those questioned were in favor of holding a nationwide poll on the Constitution.
But in order for such a vote to take place, the German Constitution would have to be changed. Currently it only allows for holding referendums on shifting the borders of the federal states. Matthias Herdegen, a Bonn-based legal expert on the Constitution, names three reasons why the authors of the Basic Law, as it's called, were so skeptical about referendums. "The experience with Hitler's Third Reich, the emotionalization of referendums and the trust in the quality of the parliamentary process," contributed to the distrust of plebiscites, he says.
On the party level, the issue is hotly contended with views for and against running roughly along government and opposition lines. The keenest backers are the neo-liberal Free Democrats and the former communist Party of Socialist Democrats. But leaders of the opposition conservative Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union also want people to have their say on the EU's first constitution. The leaders of the governing Social Democrats are against holding a referendum, as is Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens, despite standing against the wishes of the grass roots Greens.
It's a "topsy turvy" situation, according to Herdegen. "On the one side are those traditionally in favor of referendums, but against holding one on the European integration process, and on the other side are those traditionally against referendums but favoring one on this issue," he says.
Let the people speak
The "More Democracy" movement has signed up 34 German legal experts to lend their support to the campaign. Although they endorse the idea of holding a referendum on the EU Constitution, they don't all agree on whether the outcome of the vote should be binding for the Bundestag or just a reading on the mood in the country without any consequences.
The advantage in just collecting opinions would be that the German constitution would not have to be changed. Matthias Herdegen, however, dismisses such an exercise. "Even if the findings were not binding for the Bundestag, there would still be risks if the population voted 'no' on the EU Constitution," he says.
Probably the biggest damage in such a scenario would be that a majority in parliament acted against the majority public opinion. "That would be a crisis," says Herdegen.