Monday, May 23, 2005

Of rats and sinking ships

Although the crashing defeat of Schröder's Social Democrats last night in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia was hardly unexpected, the event could still have unexpected consequences.

One, certainly, was the chancellor bringing forward the general election from next year to this autumn, but there is an even more profound possibility. Schröder has now lost control of the Bundesrat – the upper house of the German federal parliament – controlling only five seats as opposed to the 11 of 16 that his party controlled in 1999.

Yet, it is in the Bundesrat that the final stage of ratification of the EU constitution must take place, and this is not due until 27 May. To ratify the constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote, which Schröder no longer commands.

The länder are already rebellious about being railroaded into ratifying the constitution – the timetable being set by Schröder, simply to influence the French referendum - and the election defeat gives them the opportunity to make their voices heard.

The House has expressed its concerns about the possible accession of Turkey and is uneasy about the lack of participatory rights of the Bundesrat in EU affairs. It wants to increase its influence ahead of EU decisions on subjects which affect its areas of competence, and also wants the individual right for each region to take EU institutions to the European Court of Justice in the event of a breach of the subsidiary principle.

While it is highly unlikely that the House will actually block ratification, with defeat of Schröder in North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU/CSU could decide to flex its muscles by delaying the process. That, in turn, could influence the French referendum in a way not anticipated by Schröder, affording the Länder an opportunity to negotiate changes to the EU text - by proxy, so to speak – when or if the French reject the constitution.

In that event, we could be seeing another example of the rat leaving the sinking ship – the Bundesrat.

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