More Power to Brussels? Germany Considers Holding EU Referendum

By and

Chancellor Angela Merkel wants Europe to move toward an ever closer union in a bid to solve the euro crisis. But she is already pushing at the limits of what is possible under the constitution. The debate about holding a referendum on transferring power to Brussels is gathering momentum in Germany.

The Reichstag building in Berlin. Zoom
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The Reichstag building in Berlin.

A bottle of liquor and a half-empty glass stand on the table next to Angela Merkel, who is studying a confidential document with a sullen expression. "How to Break Up the Euro," is the title.

That, at least, is how Britain's Economist imagines the chancellor's predicament these days. "Tempted, Angela?" is the headline on the cover of the current issue.

Cover of the current issue of The Economist Zoom
DPA / The Economist

Cover of the current issue of The Economist

Indeed, the chancellor is in a tricky position at the moment, as she fails to get the euro crisis under control. Of course, the Economist's notion of a secret plan to break up the euro zone is purely fictitious. But it fits into the current debate, where more and more politicians from Germany's coalition government are talking about radical steps to solve the euro crisis.

Officially, though, Merkel's line is that she wants more Europe, not less. In the chancellor's bid to save the common currency, she is willing to go to the very limits of what is permissible under the German constitution. That was made clear by her support for the permanent euro rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and her pet project, the fiscal pact. But Merkel still wants more. "We need a political union," she recently said on German public television station ARD. "That means we have to give up further competencies to Europe, step by step, in an ongoing process."

Talk of a Vote

But that will probably not work, given the limits of the German constitution, something that members of the opposition have been pointing out for some time. In the meantime, more and more people within the governing parties have been talking about holding a referendum in Germany on the European Union. Rainer Brüderle, the floor leader of the business-friendly Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, said on Friday that there could come a point "when a referendum on Europe becomes necessary."

Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has even called for several referendums. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has also talked about holding a national vote on the EU.

Such a vote could indeed be a way to get the much needed legitimacy for a transfer of national competences to Brussels. But how would it actually work in practice? SPIEGEL ONLINE presents an overview of some possibilities.

There are three conceivable options for a referendum:

1. The Voluntary Way

The German constitution, officially known as the Basic Law, does not make much mention of direct democracy. Referendums are only specifically foreseen for the case of a reorganization of Germany's territory and for the event that the Basic Law, which was originally supposed to be temporary, is superseded by a new constitution. There have been repeated calls to give the population a greater say beyond ordinary elections, especially from the opposition. In contrast to the CDU, the CSU and FDP are open to the idea.

Critics say that questions about transfers of competence or measures to save the euro are too complex. But CSU leader Seehofer considers those objections to be "pure arrogance" towards the people. In the newspaper Die Welt, Seehofer listed three areas where people should have more say. They include: the transfer of significant competencies to Brussels; the enlargement of the European Union through new member states; and German financial support for other EU states.

What is striking here is that the CSU would answer "no" to all of these questions. And the party believes that an increasingly euroskeptic German population would also say the same. But not even Seehofer himself appears to believe that the constitution would really be amended to include his proposed referendums.

2. The Forced Way

Even more likely than opening up the constitution for referendums is that it comes up for discussion as a consequence of European integration. And this, of course, would require Germans to decide on a new constitution. Article 146 of the constitution stipulates that the current constitution "shall cease to apply on the day on which a constitution freely adopted by the German people takes effect."

Indeed, Schäuble and Brüderle aren't the only ones that suspect that when the Federal Constitutional Court delivers its verdict on the fiscal pact and the ESM, it will say that the limits of the current constitution have been reached. What's more, since the official stance of almost all German political parties is that the response to the crisis should be "more Europe," a referendum seems inevitable.

At the moment, the questions of exactly what Germans would be voting on and when are just as unclear as what the court will decide. So far, there has only been vague talk about such issues as "political union," "yielded sovereignty" and "common budgetary policy." Peer Steinbrück, a former federal finance minister and leading figure in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), predicts that there will be a referendum within two years, while Schäuble says five. Typically, Chancellor Merkel refuses to speculate.

Despite this guessing game, one thing is clear: Before Germans can hold a vote on the EU, the European Union has to decide what it wants. "Creating a new constitution, if necessary, can only be the absolutely final step and therefore never a 'foundation stone' in the construction of a new European statehood but, rather, always only the 'keystone,'" stressed constitutional law expert Hans-Peter Schneider in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Still, getting to the keystone stage could take some time -- even if the crisis calls for determined action. Seen from this perspective, the various ideas about referendums that even the ruling coalition is throwing around right now are probably nothing more than a way to keep voters calm.

In short, the message they want to send is this: Don't worry. You will have the last word.

3. The European Way

A referendum in Germany could also be embedded within a pan-European referendum. This would theoretically have all EU member states vote on the expansion of EU powers, and on the same day.

The idea of having a common constitution for all EU states is not new. In 2004, EU heads of state and government approved a draft constitution that, among other things, would have given the European Parliament more power and limited the influence of individual member states. But after failed referendums in France and the Netherlands, the constitution idea fizzled out. Instead, leaders agreed on the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.

In order to put some teeth into EU policies aimed at better combating the financial and economic crises, there needs to be a new agreement -- or, better yet, a constitution.

A few weeks ago, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that such a constitution would have to be ratified by referendums in all EU countries. And that includes Germany.

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1. The 'how' is the problem, not the 'what'.
yiannaki 08/11/2012
To my opnion Europe should start asking itself about 'how' it is operating today. And when not doing that the result of every referendum concerning Europe will be a 'no'. Because the European citizens are really sick of the road Europe did take this far. And they do not see their politicians did and do understand that. So it's free shooting for the populists. Concerning the 'how', clear is that the euro-project started with two different cultural and by that economic denominators. We ignored that ! And by helping them now we try to force the South Europeans to accept the North European economic and by that cultural denominator. It won't work this way. These change will take 25 years or 2 generations at least. When they want to !!!!! So it's better to stop this full time crisis road. And ask the european citizens whether they still want the euro this way with this full time crisis road or should we better stop, turn around and take better road. A road that gives every country time to make their culture and economy euro proof. If they want to. I think I do know the answer of such a referendum. So we better stop pushing today's 'what' and do start discussing tomorrows 'how'.
2.
marc512 08/11/2012
Merkel will have a surprise in this referendum, because as far as I can see, almost everyone around me is against more transfers and against debt union and all that. Bring on the referendum!
3. The tyranny of the acronyms: UN, UK, USSR, EU, USA, et al
titus_norberto 08/14/2012
The tyranny of the acronyms, UK, USSR, EU, USA, et al, all disguise the fact that are anonymously ruled by entertainers and involve wars. The acronym "USA" is not extent of blood, since these obscure and anonymous organizations need blood to grow, take for instance USA and the Secession War, a bloody confrontation for economic reasons: 1- the South wanted to maintain the black slave trade to produce their commodities; 2- the industrial North regarded CHEAPER salaried "slaves" for the factories far important, remember that we were at the height of the Industrial Revolution (see Dickens and his character, Fagan, training and using orphans as thieves), perhaps the southerner slaves lived better than the "free people" sweating in the dirty factories or mines at that time. Or take for instance the UK, in 1668, a DUTCH invasion fleet (dubbed the "Glorious Revolution" or, as I prefer, "The Inglorious Invasion") composed by more than 400 vessels invaded, while the local entertainers managed to neutralize both English army and fleet to the point that not a shot was fired..., they allowed the DUTCH landing in the MOTHERLAND at will as done with the Persians in Babylon. Once the UK was built, immediately another aggregation was created, the British EMPORIUM was invented using bribes, betrayal, stock listed companies such as South Sea Company, drug dealing (Opium), and black slave trade, the origin of modern RACISM. The UK meant the destruction of Scotland, Ireland and the Welsh as free nations which, curiously, are regaining their sovereignty (a natural counter EU phenomenon) as we speak (2012). There is no need to cite the crimes against humanity committed in the late USSR for the sake of the acronym... Thus, acronyms cannot succeed without BLOOD (past behaviour is a good predictor of present one, a well-established psychological principle), and the EU, luckily have none yet. Acronyms create more acronyms by aggregation, the aim of a bunch of well coordinated weasels is to rule the world through corruption and MONEY (usury). Perhaps the best solution is to step back, do not force the union since it will require blood without any benefits. A loose community of NATIONS based on two principles: 1- sovereignty; 2- jurisdiction Is a far better approach, rather than a secretive, obscure, plutocratic (as the criminal Council of Ten in Venice) managed by COMMISSARS with no national or religious allegiance and only accountability to their secret paymasters, a government which will be managed Behind the Scenes through MONEY to worship Mammon, the Beast... Norberto
4. More Power to Brussels?: Germany Considers Holding EU Referendum
sylvesterthecat 08/16/2012
Do you really think that all EU countries will stand aside and wait for Germany alone to decide the direction that Europe will go? Isn't it obvious that every EU country will want a say on further integration? It will be interesting to speculate on the results that comes out of a Europe wide referendum. While the lure of money will possibly produce a 'yes' vote in the southern states, will the northern states,including Germany who will be expected to provide the money, vote 'yes' or 'no'? Any combination or permutation of states accepting or rejecting further integration is possible. Apart from exhortation from Brussels to accept further integration, there is little anyone can do. Trying to manipulate the result in any other way would be tantamount to herding cats. The only predictable result would be that the UK would vote 'no' and would consequently leave the EU.
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