Schröder poised for historic U-turn over EU referendum

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The Independent Online

Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats have bowed to public pressure and announced plans to scrap Germany's 54-year-old ban on national plebiscites which would allow the country to join Britain and France in a referendum on the planned European constitution next year.

Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats have bowed to public pressure and announced plans to scrap Germany's 54-year-old ban on national plebiscites which would allow the country to join Britain and France in a referendum on the planned European constitution next year.

The decision, taken by the Chancellor's Social Democrat Party leadership on Sunday, follows months of mounting public pressure for a nationwide referendum on the EU constitution in Germany where polls suggest 70 percent of the population is in favour.

Franz Muentefering, the Social Democrat Party leader said his party would put new legislation before the Berlin parliament this autumn seeking approval for scrapping Germany's ban on national referendums.

"If we manage to get the law changed, it could be possible to hold a referendum at the beginning of 2005," Mr Muentefering said. "The public should be given the opportunity to voice its opinion between general elections."

National plebiscites are banned in an attempt to ensure that the country remains anchored in parliamentary democracy. The memory of the Nazi era and Adolf Hitler's unscrupulous use of plebiscites to consolidate his hold on power led the architects of Germany's 1948 constitution to ban them from the political process. At present, the German constitution allows referendums only on regional issues and within the country's 16 federal states.

Only last month, Chancellor Schröder appeared to be firmly against changing the law. "Even if we wanted to have a vote, we would not be allowed to," he said. "Plebiscites are illegal under our constitution."

But the decision by Britain, France and Spain to hold separate referendums on the proposed EU constitution, has provoked a clamour in Germany for its ban to be revoked. Backing has cut across the political spectrum. Edmund Stoiber, the conservative Bavarian Prime Minister who ran against Mr Schröder in Germany's 2002 election, declared last month: "If the French and the British are to hold a referendum on this issue, the Germans cannot be barred from the process."

His stance has been echoed by Roman Herzog, Germany's former conservative president, who said Germany faced the possibility of being the only country in Europe not to hold a referendum. Other advocates include Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party, Mr Schröder's Green coalition partners, and Wolfgang Thierse, Germany's Social Democrat parliamentary president.

But Germany's opposition conservative party leadership is still opposed to the idea. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat leader, said the EU constitution should be decided by parliament alone. Unless the conservatives change their minds, Mr Schröder may find it difficult to secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for such a referendum.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the former Christian Democrat party leader, warned: "There is a danger that a referendum on the EU constitution would lead to a vote that has nothing to do with the EU." Mr Schröder's Social Democrats had until last week privately voiced fears that a plebiscite on the EU constitution could lead to a massive vote of no-confidence in Germany's already unpopular government. They appear to have been swayed by the argument that by supporting the idea, the government may be able to recoup badly needed voter support.

* Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in more than 150 German towns and cities last night to protest against the Schröder government's plans to slash benefits for the long-term unemployed under its economic reform programme. In the east German city of Leipzig, Oskar Lafontaine the former left-wing German Finance Minister and former Social Democrat Party leader, was to attempt a political comeback with a scathing attack on the government's policies.

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