Germans seek a veto on EU expansion

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The Independent Online

The Government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is preparing to introduce referendums that could hand German voters the power of veto over future developments in Europe.

The Government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is preparing to introduce referendums that could hand German voters the power of veto over future developments in Europe.

The announcement yesterday by Franz Müntefering, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, follows a proposal that Germans should vote directly on which countries are to be admitted to the European Union. The proposal came from Günter Verheugen, EU commissioner in charge of EU enlargement and a former official of Mr Schröder's party.

Berlin initially sought to distance itself from Mr Verheugen's remarks, saying German law did not allow for plebiscites. But yesterday it shifted position, confirming plans to change the constitution, allowing plebiscites for the first time since the Third Reich. Mr Müntefering said: "It is an invitation to people to participate more intensively in our democracy."

The plan would be put to the party's executive in autumn, in the hope it would become law by 2002. A two-thirds majority in parliament would be required. The Greens have already declared support for referendums. Since the Second World War referendums have been banned, because Hitler used them to bypass democratic structures. But Mr Müntefering argues that now Germans can be trusted to make the right decisions.

The politician said he did not think EU enlargement should be left to the German people, but a poll by the weekly Woche found that 57 per cent of those questioned said enlargement should be put to a referendum.

Polls on the merits of applicant countries have found only Hungary would be approved by most Germans. Today, when fear of foreigners is fanning far-right violence, a referendum on enlargement would almost certainly degenerate into a xenophobic campaign. There would be nothing to stop neo-Nazis printing posters such as "Do we want more Poles in our country?"

German parties have run plebiscites. Last year the Christian Democrats (CDU) collected 500,000 signatures opposing the liberal nationality law. This year the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia asked voters to sign postcards bearing the logo "Children instead of Indians", a call to train German pupils for jobs in new technology rather than hiring foreigners.

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