Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble got the ball rolling in June with favorable remarks concerning a national referendum on revising the constitution. The momentum for a plebiscite on closer EU ties is gaining speed.
Germany has never had a national referendum. Plebiscites are only an option in a few of the 16 federal states. In recent weeks, however, just about every notable German politician has commented on letting the German people vote directly on issues concerning European integration.
An interview in Germany's Spiegel news magazine in June with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble on the euro crisis triggered the debate. The minister dismissed jointly issued eurobonds to pool government debt as long as there is no European fiscal union. If the latter is desired, Schäuble said, EU member states would have to cede competence in budget policies to the European level. In order to legitimize such a transfer of authority, Schäuble argued, the EU would require the EU Commission President to be elected directly, empower a stronger EU parliament and a chamber of states modeled on the German upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, or the US senate.
"It might happen faster than you think"
Schäuble maintains that Germany's Basic Law does not allow for such a transfer of authority. Thus, a referendum on a new constitution may become necessary, he said. "I believe that may happen more quickly than I thought just a few months ago," he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has not commented directly on a referendum, but she made her stance clear: "At the moment, steps to be taken tomorrow or the next day - more likely the next day - are not an issue."
A plebiscite is an issue, however, for a host of senior German politicians, who have begun to revive the debate.
Opposition Social Democratic party leader Sigmar Gabriel urged "common European finance and tax policies" without which "the euro will break apart and comprisde only states of similar economic potential." A constitutional convent must first compose an amendment to the constitution to be voted on by the people in a referendum, Gabriel told a Berlin newspaper earlier this month. .
Leading members of the Greens and the Left Party have also spoken out in favor of holding a national referendum on European integration.
Rainer Brüderle, parliamentary leader of the ruling Free Democrats (FDP) and a former economics minister, said on Friday that Germany "could reach the stage at which a referendum on Europe becomes necessary."
Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), said ordinary Germans should be consulted more on European decisions, such as financial aid for other members, or EU expansion.
Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere has taken a more cautious approach. "Before we let the people vote on a new constitution, we must change the treaties in Europe," he said. "It's well-known how difficult that is." Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen warned of questioning in passing "our wise and valuable Basic Law." She noted the constitution leaves quite some leeway where European integration is concerned.
Legal experts are at loggerheads over how great this leeway is. All eyes are on the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which is due to rule on September 12 on the European pact on budget discipline and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to which German taxpayers will be the biggest contributors.
There is but one certainty: the eternity clause - a legal colloquial name for Article 79, paragraph 3 - in the German Basic Law clearly limits the transfer of authority to a European level.
The clause stipulates which regulations in the Basic Law may not be changed. They include the provisions in Article 20: "All state authority emanates from the people."
A European state authority would not emanate from the German people alone, and would thus require a new constitutional basis. A final provision regulates that circumstance: the Basic Law "shall cease to apply on the day a constitution takes effect which the German people have freely adopted."
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