Destroying and building democracy, a German view


Dr Catherine Goetze

Senior Lecturer in International Relations.

Degree in political science from the Free University Berlin, a French/German joint degree in social sciences from the Free University Berlin and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), a sort of MA degree from Sciences Po (DEA Etudes Politiques/Relations Internationales), and a PhD in political science from the Free University Berlin. 



EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 2

Section 2: Politics

In Germany, referenda are anti-constitutional and for a reason: they were the Nazi’s favourite means of breaking international treaties and preparing war. Among the more known referenda were the ones on the annexation of Austria and Germany’s exit of the League of Nations, both sanctioned with more than 90% of the eligible voters. Based on the experience of the Third Reich, Germany’s federal constitution has a number of safeguards to avoid exactly the situation that has arisen in Great Britain after the referendum: a major crisis of democracy and the country’s parliamentary institutions.

The biggest constitutional work that is awaiting Great Britain in the wake of this referendum is to think about the form of the Union and how to get political decision-making close to the local and county level in order to better respond to the diversity and concrete needs of the British population in a globalised world

Not only do referenda not exist but any change to the constitution (as an exit from the EU would demand) requires a two third majority of both parliamentary chambers, the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council. Members to the Federal Assembly are elected through a mixed system of proportional voting (one cross for the party) and ‘list voting’ where voters choose their candidates from a list. Voters can therefore split their votes, for instance in order to favour a local MP who they think is doing well even if s/he is not member of their preferred political party. Parliamentary representation requires that a party receives at least 5% of votes in the proportional voting. Add this to a much stricter party discipline in parliament (if not declared an open vote, MPs risk losing their seat if they vote against their party’s line), and a far-reaching devolution of legislative, taxation and political powers to the federal states, counties and municipal council to diversify channels of democratic participation and to counter-act tendencies of centralized alienation. This makes a long list of safeguards to avoid political disasters such as the Brexit referendum where a meek 37.4% of eligible voters have decided on a matter of epic and international dimensions.

Ostensibly, British parties have no proper institutional way of responding to this vote and are on the verge of exploding instead of channelling the vote’s result into a reasoned parliamentary debate. The most vocal leader of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage, is not even a MP himself and his party is represented with only one seat in Parliament. The dynamics of Brexit are mostly extra-parliamentary. Every ingredient of the disaster of Weimar’s dismissal are united at this very moment.

And yet, many, even Remainers, celebrate the Referendum as a strong show of democracy. Clearly, many British citizens have expressed their strong feelings of anger and frustration with Westminster more than the EU (given the level of ignorance about the implications of Brexit), and many may have secretly hoped that their vote would have exactly the destructive effect it had. Rather than calling it a democratic vote, hence, one should call it a luddite vote. The intent was to break the machine and to claim people power. It might well be that Leave voters had no clue what they wanted control over but they were certainly sure that they wanted neither the EU nor Westminster to have it. The argument that sovereignty in Britain lies in Parliament since it forced out the King in 1688 will only reinforce those feelings of bitterness and the wish to destroy the system. The cry is for popular, not parliamentary sovereignty. Trying to make up now for democratic safeguards that have never existed with this terribly ill-conceived Referendum, will, in the current situation, alienate the Leave electorate even more and fuel their propensity for further (auto)destructive voting.

Very few politicians currently debate the leave vote on these terms and think about how it might be possible to de-locate Parliamentary decision-making from London to loci of decision-making which are closer to the people who reject Westminster democracy. With the notable exception of the Greens who tabled again proposals for proportional voting, there is absolutely no debate about forms of federalism and about the question how local councils and counties could be made more responsive and participatory. Yet, even if proportional voting will allow a better reflection of voters’ preferences and therefore counter-act feelings ‘that my vote doesn’t count’, it is not sufficient.

The biggest constitutional work that is awaiting Great Britain in the wake of this referendum is to think about the form of the Union and how to get political decision-making close to the local and county level in order to better respond to the diversity and concrete needs of the British population in a globalised world. This not only means strengthening local and regional institutions but also making sure that there is much more equitable regional distribution of the country’s wealth.

This includes developing further devolution to downsize political decision-making on the one hand, and integrating the existing European citizen rights (like the right to participate in local elections) to open up British politics, on the other. It means as well as to think creatively and collectively about representation beyond the tyranny of a minority. The British could certainly copy something from Germany’s present political system (or other federal states like Switzerland).

But, sure enough, the tide of xenophobia and nationalistic hubris that was unleashed with the Referendum campaign will prevent any such learning from European neighbours, and that’s where the real misery of this referendum lies. In the end, Brexit is a nationalist vote and that is a vote for narrow-minded closure.