The Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest court, has rejected a legal plea for a popular vote on the EU constitution Thursday. The decision could clear the way for ratification of the charter in May.
Schröder signed it, now it's parliament's turn to ratify it
Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, rejected a legal challenge to the country's ratification of the European Union constitution on Thursday. The decision will lead to a parliamentary vote on the charter in May.
The Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, is due to vote on the charter on May 12. The Bundesrat, the upper house, is scheduled to vote on it on May 27. It is hoped that a German ratification of the constitution will add weight to the French 'Yes' campaign in France's own referendum which follows two days after the Bundestag vote.
There is a chance, however, that Germany may still be undecided by that time. A number of the 16 federal states that sit in the upper house have indicated they may hold out on approving the charter, possibly until June, in order to increase their influence over future EU legislation. In a bid to sway some of the powerful states toward a 'Yes' vote, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder met with four state premiers on Thursday.
German ratification of the charter requires approval by two-thirds of each chamber but with both main parties supporting the constitution in principle, this is expected to be easily attained.
CSU minister behind legal bid to halt ratification
This did not stop Peter Gauweiler of the opposition Christian Social Union (CSU) asking parliament to stop the ratification of the constitution, the plea that led to the Constitutional Court ruling on Thursday.
Gauweiler had said he wanted a German referendum on the issue, which would have at least delayed Berlin's ratification of the charter. The government had ruled one out, saying Germany's own constitution does not allow for national referendums.
Gauweiler is not alone in his support of a popular vote on the constitution. Last year, a survey showed that three-quarters of German voters said that they wanted the chance to vote on the EU Constitution.
Edmund Stoiber, the leader of the CSU and ultimately Gauweiler's boss, is also a strong supporter of the referendum idea, saying that such an important decision on the future of Europe must rest in the hands of the people, not the politicians, and that there should be a Europe-wide referendum on the constitution.
Stoiber even suggested last summer 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 called for changes to Germany's constitution
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 Bundestag and the Bundesrat, which represents state interests.
However, not all conservatives hold the same view. Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats Union (CDU), remains firmly against changing German law to hold a plebiscite on the EU Constitution. Merkel will be relieved that the issue has been resolved for now, avoiding a potentially damaging split ahead of general elections next year.
Court ruling allays SPD fears of coalition split
Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer
The Constitutional Court's decision will also ease Social Democrat fears that the constitution issue could slip out of their control and splinter its coalition with the Greens.
The Greens and the neo-liberal Free Democrats created an unlikely alliance on the subject last year when they both came out in favor of the introduction of new legislation allowing for national referendums.
A schism in the junior coalition party has also been avoided by the court's decision as it looked increasingly likely that the Greens' de facto leader, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, would be isolated with a large majority of his colleagues and supporters in favor of a Europe-wide referendum.
Germany may now avoid the French situation
It looks likely there will be no popular vote in Germany as there will be in France
Despite the pressure from several quarters, Chancellor Schröder has resisted calls to hold a popular vote. Schröder feared that a referendum could lead to a 'No' vote in Germany, much like the current situation in France, and as a result, the whole constitution would be thrown into doubt.
It may be that Schröder had nothing to fear. An opinion poll published recently showed broad support for the EU constitution in Germany. Some 47 percent of Germans back the document, compared with 20 percent who reject it, the survey for the magazine Internationale Politik found.
The EU charter has so far been ratified by six of the EU's 25 member states but its future is in doubt since opinion polls indicate France will reject it in a national referendum. The constitution needs to be ratified by all EU member states to become law.