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Environmental activists accuse Berlin authorities of hindering climate neutrality referendum

Cars drive past election campaign posters in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 6, 2023.
Cars drive past election campaign posters in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 6, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Michael Sohn
Copyright AP Photo/Michael Sohn
By Jack McGovan
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They say the decision not to hold the referendum on the same day as local elections on Sunday but on its own in late March will likely mean turnout will be too low for the vote to be valid.

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Environmental activists in Berlin are criticising the decision by authorities not to hold a referendum on climate neutrality on the same day as the state parliamentary elections on Sunday as an attempt to hinder the success of the campaign.

Instead, the referendum to decide whether the city should be climate neutral by 2030 will be held on its own on March 26.

"The fact that they didn't [organise the votes on the same day] makes us think that maybe they had an ulterior motive," Jessamine Davis, an activist at Klimaneustart Berlin, the organisation spearheading the referendum campaign, told Euronews.

"Maybe they didn't want the climate referendum to take place on the same day as the election because they're hoping for a lower turnout," she added.

Publicly, the reason given for separating the votes is that it would have been a logistical challenge to run them at the same time. 

But in an attempt to demonstrate that it would have been possible had the political been there, Klimaneustart Berlin raised over €15,000, reserved 2.8 million ballot papers and symbolically delivered them to the state's senate on 8 December — days before the final decision was made to separate the votes.

'It should be like in Switzerland'

Davis’ worries – that the separation of the votes will lead to lower turnout – aren’t unfounded.

"In Berlin, there has only been a single successful referendum which hasn’t taken place at the same time as another vote,” Oliver Wiedmann, a board member of Mehr Demokratie ("More Democarcy"), a German non-profit focused on improving citizen participation in politics, told Euronews.

"The chance that a referendum will succeed is clearly higher when it takes place at the same time as another vote," he said.

A referendum held in 2013 on whether energy companies should be renationalised in Berlin was held weeks before a general election and failed, despite 80% of the ballots approving the proposal, because the turnout was too low. 

Berlin's legal quorum — or threshold for a vote to be valid — is 25% of eligible voters. 

According to Michael Efler, a board member of Bürgerbegehren Klimaschutz, motivating people to show up for a referendum is difficult as it focuses on one specific issue. In comparison, general elections offer a wider package of policies. 

After his experiences campaigning for the 2013 referendum, Efler supports abolishing the quorum.

“It should be like in Switzerland where the people who are going to vote decide the outcome,” he said. 

Those on the opposing side of the debate currently have no reason to mobilise and run a campaign because increasing voter turnout goes against their interests, Efler argued, citing the 2013 referendum.

“[Swedish power company] Vattenfall was very clever – they didn't engage that much in the campaign,” he said. 

When a referendum on the same topic was held in Hamburg on the same day as another vote, however, Vattenfall ran a strong campaign, Efler added. And unlike in Berlin, the referendum in Hamburg was successful, having met the conditions of the quorum.

2030 climate neutrality goal 'unachievable'

Seeing the odds stacked against them, Klimaneustart Berlin filed a lawsuit against the senate, with Davis claiming that the “law demands” the votes take place on the same day. 

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She argued that the basis of the lawsuit was “because the Abstimmungsgesetz [voting law] makes it clear that the senate needs to do everything in its power to [combine the votes].”

Jan Thomsen, press officer for the Senate Department of Environment, Mobility, Consumer and Climate Protection in Berlin, highlighted however that the lawsuit was rejected by the constitutional court, demonstrating that nothing illegal took place.

“There were debates in the Senate. The Senate Department for the Environment, Mobility, Consumer and Climate Protection and Senator Bettina Jarasch advocated for holding the election and the vote on the same day," he wrote in an email to Euronews.

He added that it was the Senate's Department for the Interior that said it was not possible to hold the votes alongside one another. He nonetheless said his department doesn’t support the referendum because it estimates that the goal of making Berlin climate neutral by 2030 is "unachievable".

The reasons given for that are a number of “hard to change circumstances” like an inability to replace fossil fuels or change federal legislation in the given timeframe.

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Despite the department's stance, Senator Jarasch has publicly voiced her support for the Yes campaign.

Wiedmannm, from Mehr Demokratie, said that although it is not illegal to split votes, they should "preferably always" be held together, stating that the intention of the law the environmental activists referred to is "completely clear."

Separating the votes, he argued, has more to do with the fact that the 12 February ballot is a repeat of a September 2021 election that was later declared void because of organisational mistakes. 

“I think there’s a lot of fear that mistakes will be made during this vote which would make it invalid again,” he said.

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