Defending German Democracy

by Andrew Stuttaford

Germany’s constitutional court is becoming ever more concerned about the rapid (yes, you read that right) pace of European integration. The Economist reports:

…Germany and other EU countries have, in the two years of the euro crisis, already ceded [further]  parts of their sovereignty to EU institutions and are being asked to cede ever more. Karlsruhe [shorthand for Germany’s constitutional court] worries that there will come a point when Germany has given up so much power that parliament becomes irrelevant, says Dieter Grimm, a former judge on the federal constitutional court. Voters would then be reduced to checking boxes on ballots, without any actual say in matters of government. Germany’s constitution forbids this. An “eternity clause” in Germany’s constitution says that certain things, above all democracy, can never be changed, even by parliament.

The question is where precisely this clause bites. Is the ESM [the new bailout fund]  innocuous, but the fiscal compact [the austerity pact] suspect? What about future steps such as euro bonds? Andreas Vosskuhle, the president of the federal constitutional court, has recently expressed his general concern that “essential decisions are negotiated in the anonymous thicket of the Brussels bureaucracy, in nightly sessions of the European Council, or somewhere else, without adequate public discussion and influence.” Budgeting decisions, in particular, must remain in the power of elected representatives, he thinks, adding: “It would be tragic if we were to lose democracy on the way to a rescue of the euro and more integration.”

Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, has now broken a taboo of sorts by predicting that the Germans will probably have to change or replace their constitution in a plebiscite. Mrs Merkel, caught off guard, agrees in principle but thinks such a referendum still lies far in the future. The federal republic has never had one, although its constitution allows for plebiscites. Yet, even a plebiscite may fall foul of the eternity clause. Karlsruhe may conclude that, for European integration to proceed, the EU itself must first become genuinely democratic.

Without a European demos—a European people—how can it?

Yes, it always comes back to that.