Unusually for August, the main topic in the German and European press is the holding of a referendum on European integration. Politicians from all political parties are competing to convince German voters that they will have the final say on the future of the EU and Germany's role in it.
Already in June, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble suggested that in five years the Germans would have to decide on giving more powers to Brussels, and his thesis about the need for more integration in the EU (the euro area) is not new. Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union), believes that there should be several separate referenda: on the transfer of more powers to Brussels; on the enlargement of the European Union; and on German financial support for other EU states. What is striking here is that the CSU would answer with "no" to all these questions, Der Spiegel magazine noted. Recently, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister (Free Democratic Party), supported, too, the idea of a referendum on these issues and, moreover, he said he hoped "that we have a real European constitution and that there will also be a referendum on it."
A referendum on what?
At first glance, raising this issue right now seems premature as the plans for the future architecture of the EU are still too vague. We can judge for them from ‘the report of the four presidents’ (of the EU Council, the EC, the ECB and the Eurogroup) which needs a more concrete shape by the end of the year. But that is not enough neither to formulate specific questions nor the citizens to be sufficiently informed to be able to answer them. Because the logical sequence is first to know how the EU will look like in the future and then ask people what they think about it.
For example, when it comes to transferring more powers to Brussels, it should be clear if it is only about budgetary and economic area as is the current trend, or is it about a wider "political union" as Chancellor Merkel often says but without going into details. It should also be clear what do we mean by "Brussels" - the European Commission in its current form or some new kind of institutional structure where, again according to Angela Merkel, the European Commission looks more like a government, the European Parliament is stronger and member states` leaders are something like its second chamber.
Another puzzling question is why is the issue raised right at a time when euroscepticism in Germany and across Europe is gaining momentum, fuelled by the unlulling crisis. Politicians have also contributed to this effect, including many of the advocates of the idea of a referendum in Germany. The simple explanation is the forthcoming German election next year - it is easy to gain popularity with eurosceptic messages at a time when a Greek exit from the eurozone is discussed, a Spanish bailout (in addition to the targeted aid to banks), and massive purchase of Italian debt.
Against this background, the message "the disciplined Germans pay the bill of the loose Southerners" is sold like hotcakes. But such behaviour is best suited for populist parties, like the "True Finns" of Timo Soini (Finland) and "The Party for Freedom" of Geerd Wilders (the Netherlands) than the traditional German political parties. Nobody will benefit from a negative vote and it seems as if politicians are trying to convince the citizens that whatever happens they will have the final say.
But there is one particular and very serious reason the issue to be raised right in Germany and right now. On September 12, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is to decide whether the Fiscal Compact (Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance of the Economic and Monetary Union) and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM, the permanent bailout fund for the euro area) are in line with the German constitution. With its decision the court will answer two of the potential questions for a possible referendum – about the transfer of more powers to Brussels (the fiscal compact) and the German financial support for other EU countries (the ESM). According to Der Spiegel, the court "will say that the limits of the current constitution have been reached" and the referendum will be inevitable.
A new German or a new European constitution?
The problem is that the German constitution provides only limited options to conduct referendums - only in cases of change in the country`s territory and entry into force of a new constitution. Therefore, according to Der Spiegel, there are only two options: adoption of a new German constitution but only after it is clear how will the EU look like or a ratification of a new EU constitution, of which Guido Westerwelle is talking about. Remembering the failure of the European Constitution in 2005, because of the results of the referenda in France and the Netherlands, makes this option seem utopian. The memory of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the first referendum in Ireland is also still fresh. Not to mention what would be the result in Britain where currently a referendum on the country`s EU membership is being discussed.
However, if it is about a major change in the EU architecture, with ceding national sovereignty at the expense of more power to a common centre, the approval of citizens must be obtained. The debate on the lack of democratic legitimacy of the EU has been long held and was quite logically exacerbated by the crisis. In an attempt to compensate for this deficit, the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 gave a greater role to the European Parliament and the national parliaments in the decision making process on European affairs. But namely in the midst of crisis, when quick actions are needed, the lengthy procedures by which European leaders`s decisions are approved by the national parliaments became a problem. An additional complication stems from the attempts of different parties to gain domestic political dividends at the expense of important EU decisions - for instance, Finland's request to obtain collateral in order to support the second Greek loan or the Netherlands' opposition to Bulgaria's and Romania's membership in Schengen.
Against this background, it is not surprising that Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti came up with a seemingly highly provocative but a rather good point. "If governments let themselves be fully bound by the decisions of their parliaments without protecting their own freedom to act, a breakup of Europe would be a more probable outcome than deeper integration," Monti said in an interview with Der Spiegel. If I had stuck to the guidelines of my parliament in an entirely mechanical way, then I would not even have been able to agree to the decisions that were made at the most recent (EU) summit in Brussels, Mario Monti explained.
We can understand him, given the lengthy and tough negotiations at several summits of the EU or the euro area - probably, positions were changed underway, it was necessary to seek compromises, to think of alternatives and make concessions. If in such a moment national leaders sit at the table with predetermined positions, which they cannot change, the probability to achieve common solutions seems really too small. Although there is always a possibility later on, again because of pressure on the national parliament, some leaders to recant of the decisions taken - the latest example are again the Netherlands and Finland, who opposed the decisions taken by the euro leaders at their summit in late June .
Monti's words provoked strong reactions from all political forces in Germany who agreed that "more Europe" cannot mean less power for the Bundestag. And the London-based think tank Open Europe wrote in its blog with unconcealed indignation: "Excuse us? An unelected technocrat instructing national governments to ignore their parliaments?" It says that "national democracy is not only a matter of principle but also serves a practical purpose: actions and policies that enjoy democratic legitimacy have a far greater chance of standing the test of time. Therefore, national parliaments are not the problem in the eurozone crisis, they are a big part of the solution to it."
More Europe, less national sovereignty?
There is no way the European integration to occur at the expense of reducing the role of national states in the EU, Ulrich Speck wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie endowment: "Even after decades of European integration, the role of the nation-state as the epicentre of political life in Europe remains unchanged. The entire political life of the EU’s constituting entities, the member states, plays on a national level. Political communication across borders remains rare, and even the creation of a European Parliament hasn’t led to the development of a common political space in Europe." And while from an economic point of view the most logical solution to the crisis is making the eurozone a political union or a European federation, "there is no political movement pushing for the transfer of key elements of sovereignty to the EU or eurozone level." Rather, it is worrying that narratives about the euro crisis remain strikingly national and are widely diverging, and euroscepticism is on the rise. "It looks rather as if the limits of integration have been reached," the author concludes and recommends that instead of dealing with utopian institutional reforms, European politicians should act within existing legislation to stimulate economic growth in a liberal Europe.
The debate on these issues are yet to run high because short-term solutions to the crisis cannot be sought without taking into account long-term vision for the European project. Obviously, at this point, opinions widely differ but the goal is not to look for ready-made recipes, and to have as broader as possible discussion, which to reach out to the citizens. This is the only way, when they have to stand before the ballot-box and decide the future of European Union, the citizens to be sufficiently informed.
Because now, one of the main reasons for the lack of democratic legitimacy of the European decisions is not the procedures, but the lack of interest and information with the citizens. And the major fault for this lies precisely with national politicians who are the natural intermediary between the EU and its citizens. It is up to them to make the debate about Europe's future part of the agenda of every society. And the citizens in turn must insist on this, because it is their right to decide but this is a right that must be constantly defended.