Could a New German Constitution Save Europe?

By Katinka Barysch

If the Social Democrats win next year's general election in Germany, they will ask voters to adopt a new constitution in a referendum. The new document, so they plan, would remove the legal fetters that currently prevent Chancellor Angela Merkel agreeing to eurobonds or joint deposit guarantees. Not only the Social Democratic Party (SPD), also politicians from Merkel's ruling coalition are now speaking out in favor of a referendum. Some analysts are rejoicing that Berlin is finally preparing the ground for the fiscal union that will save the euro. But this is Germany, where policymaking is complex and slow. The debate about a new constitution might sap political energies without contributing much to the stability of the single currency.

German politicians mean different things when they talk about a euro-related referendum. Sigmar Gabriel and his fellow leaders of the SPD say they want voters' consent to a eurozone fiscal union that involves not only debt mutualisation but also joint budget-planning, harmonized tax rates and tough financial regulation. Some pro-European MPs in Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) agree on the need for a new constitution. But many others insist that the current document leaves enough leeway for euro rescue measures. Some CDU politicians use talk about a referendum mainly as a warning shot to the constitutional court: if you judges continue constraining Merkel's euro policies, a new constitution will restore power to elected politicians. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble predicts that a constitutional referendum will happen "quicker than I would have expected a couple of months ago". But he does not say what it would entail.

Horst Seehofer, leader of the traditionally euro-wary Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's smaller Bavarian sister party, wants a referendum each time the EU assumes new powers, bails out a struggling member or admits new countries. And he probably hopes voters will say no to these. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle from the Free Democratic Party (FDP, another coalition member), contemplates not a German but a Europe-wide referendum on euro rescue measures. All parties are spooked by the recent successes of the Pirate party which campaigns for more country-wide referendums.

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Even if Germany's politicians could agree on a referendum strategy, this would not be a quick fix to save the euro.

Germans are having this debate right now because the constitutional court has indicated that EU integration could not go much further on the basis of the current constitution. Stricter budgetary oversight from Brussels, as envisaged by the fiscal compact, could be problematic. Eurobonds or any other kind of unlimited liability involved in a fiscal or banking union would be incompatible with the constitution. These would undermine Germany's statehood and democracy by constraining parliament. If politicians cannot promise different fiscal policies, voters are deprived of a real choice and democracy suffers.

These constraints cannot be removed easily because the German constitution contains an 'eternity clause' (Article 79) that sets in stone certain principles, notably democracy, federalism and the market economy. No parliamentary majority and no referendum can alter these principles. Hence, the only way for Germany to accede to a fiscal union is to convene a constitutional assembly, work out a new constitution and put it to a referendum.

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Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.


(AP Photo)

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