| BERLIN, July 24
BERLIN, July 24 "Do you, German men and women,
endorse this policy of your Reich government, and are you ready
to express, of your own free will, that you will solemnly commit
yourself to it?"
An undercurrent of menace in the wording of the Nazis' 1933
referendum to leave the League of Nations - ratified by 95
percent of voters - and the abuse of plebiscites in the Weimar
Republic explain a lingering unease in Germany about national
But seven decades on, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble
has put the cat among the pigeons by saying it is time for a
vote on further integration into Europe, a n d opinion polls
suggest the public is behind him.
So far, with the sometimes qualified consent of the Federal
Constitutional Court, Germany has ceded powers to Europe and
agreed bailouts for struggling euro zone partners without
explicit consent from voters, but the region's stubborn debt
crisis has thrown up ever more demands for concessions to EU
"We didn't have a referendum when we gave up the deutsche
mark, so I can't believe we'll have one to make the ESM
(European Stability Mechanism) happen - unless we need a new
constitution, of course," said politics professor Tanja Boerzel
Referendums remain a tough sell for many German politicians,
Chancellor Angela Merkel chief among them.
Conveniently for Merkel, Germany's "Basic Law" only permits
a national referendum in the extreme circumstances of reshaping
borders or drawing up a whole new constitution.
While referendums by federal states are common - such as
Bavaria's 2010 decision to ban smoking at the Oktoberfest -
changing the constitution to permit a national referendum would
require two-thirds majorities in the Bundestag lower house of
parliament and the Bundesrat upper house.
This is a high hurdle at the best of times, as Merkel has
found for votes affecting sovereignty during the euro zone debt
crisis, and can only get tougher as federal elections approach
Schaeuble provoked the debate by saying a referendum would
"come more quickly than I would have believed". While the two
biggest political parties - the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU)
and opposition Social Democrats (SPD) - are cool toward it,
Merkel's smaller coalition partners like the idea, in principle
In a Deutschlandtrend poll this month, 71 percent of Germans
polled wanted a direct vote on whether more powers - especially
over the budget - should be ceded to EU authorities in Brussels.
Merkel's spokesman, careful not to tread on Schaeuble's
toes, said this was a question for "uebermorgen" (the day after
tomorrow), not for now.
More than half of those polled opposed changing the
constitution to save the euro, giving up budget powers or
creating a "United States of Europe", which stands in stark
contrast to Merkel's mantra of "more Europe" as the answer to
the region's debt crisis.
BACK TO THE PEOPLE
The decision may be partly taken out of politicians' hands
by the Constitutional Court, which is keeping Europe on
tenterhooks until Sept. 12, when it will rule on whether Germany
can legally ratify the ESM, a permanent bailout scheme, and the
fiscal pact, an agreement on budget discipline across Europe.
So far in the sovereign debt crisis, the court in Karlsruhe
has okayed bailout deals for fellow euro zone nations such as
Greece but has wagged a finger at the government for not
adequately consulting the Bundestag.
It may just do the same in September - but if it does reject
the ESM and fiscal pact, or signal very strongly that the Basic
Law has been stretched as far as it can and that further EU
integration needs constitutional change, a referendum might be
on the cards.
"The court can't order a referendum. All it can do is say
the constitution does not allow Germany to go any further. Then
it is up to politicians to decide whether to forget the treaty
or, if they deem further integration inevitable, ask the
people," said one senior judicial source.
Schaeuble, a leading figure in previous drives for European
integration in the era of former chancellor Helmut Kohl, w ants
the fullest possible democratic legitimacy for far-reaching
reforms that would lead inexorably to a federal Europe.
This puts him in the unlikely company of eurosceptics and
the hardline Left, who see a referendum as the best way of going
in the opposite direction and collapsing the whole euro project.
Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker and author of the
best-seller "Europe Doesn't Need the Euro", sees a referendum as
a platform for eurosceptics like himself, who are otherwise
reduced to shouting from the political sidelines.
He would like the Constitutional Court to rule in September
that "parliament gets its right from the people and can stretch
its rights only so far, and at a certain red line has to go back
to the people and lay this question before the people".
But even Sarrazin warns of the risk of demagogues hijacking
a direct vote, at a time of fragmentation in the party political
system when mavericks such as the Pirates and eurosceptics such
as the Bavarian Free Voters have their sights on the Bundestag
Bavaria's ruling Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party
to Merkel's CDU, confront the Free Voters in a state election in
2013. Though long champions of referendums, the CSU thinks they
should only be introduced nationwide after lengthy discussion.
RISK OF A "NO"
Likewise, the CDU/CSU's junior coalition partners the Free
Democrats (FDP) are in favour of referendums, but the party's
second-in-command Patrick Doering has tempered that enthusiasm.
"It would require a change in the Basic Law, and this is a
debate we favour. I am a bit sceptical about whether now is the
right time for testing out a plebiscite on the complexities of
the European Union," he said.
Merkel aides say she is extremely unlikely to take such a
risk before the 2013 elections, when on current form she would
win a third term. The same polls that voice discontent with the
euro reflect confidence in her leadership and a belief that she
is better equipped to handle the crisis than the SPD.
Despite resistance in the Bundestag from a hard core of up
to two dozen centre-right backbenchers who routinely rebel on
euro votes, Merkel got two-thirds approval on the ESM less than
a month ago thanks to the SPD, whose pro-European credentials
have kept them onside.
When the chancellor promised to turn the 2013 elections into
a vote on Europe, SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel responded vigorously
with "Let's do it!"
This may be a bid by Merkel to get direct legitimation for
political and fiscal integration in Europe from the people, but
without the inherent risk of single-issue referendums, which
elsewhere in Europe have tended to mobilise the "No" vote.
"The risk is, from the point of view of governments, that
referendums very often give a negative majority," said German
law professor Ulrich Battis.
Beyond 2013, the pragmatic Merkel might accept a direct vote
on Europe, and if she headed a "Grand Coalition" with the SPD as
in her first term, the parliamentary obstacles would be easier.
EU integration might then have to halt at every step for a
Bundestag vote or German referendum, bogging down a
decision-making process that financial markets already consider
agonisingly slow, thanks to Germany's parliament and top court.
But, as one German official put it, "That's democracy".