March 17, 2013
Referendum movement in Berlin aims to democratize entire energy sector

A creative new campaign to democratize the economy has been gathering momentum in Germany’s capital. More than 50 organizations support a referendum initiative to publicly take over the Berlin energy sector and restructure it as a democratically run municipal company. In the coming four months, the campaign needs to gather two hundred thousand signatures to put the communalization of the city’s power plants and electricity net to a vote.

Berlin’s power plants and electricity net used to be run by the municipal state company BEWAG up to 2002. This company, however, has slowly but surely been sold off to the Swedish state-owned multinational Vattenfall, which now has the monopoly on the production and distribution of electricity in the state of Berlin.

Since gaining complete control of the BEWAG in 2009, Vattenfall has made itself deeply unpopular among Berliners. The corporation has steadily raised prices at an increasing rate, jacking up the rate by 21% in the last 2 years. It also has sued the German government at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes over the German government’s nuclear moratorium. Vattenfall demands a million Euro’s for each day they have had their nuclear reactors shut down after the Fukushima disaster.

What’s more, the same multinational has just announced 1,500 job cuts in Germany and directly fired 300 employees last week, provoking 4000 union members to demonstrate in Berlin’s center district. All this has contributed to a situation where this new radical referendum alternative can count on sympathy from a wide majority of Berliners.

In the last couple of years, social movements in Berlin have started a string of referendum initiatives. The most successful one demanded the publication of the secret contract stipulating the terms of sale of the municipal water company to multinationals Veolia and RWE. When the issue was put to a vote in 2011, the referendum was passed with almost 99% in favor. Several others are also under way. One such further initiative has been started to counter privatization of the regional train system S-Bahn. Another promising referendum action aims to keep the former airport Tempelhof intact as a public recreational space.

The positive reactions and uniting experience with these referendum campaigns have encouraged activists to go further with the demands raised in the referendum on the Berlin energy sector. Previously, the demands limited themselves to the issue of transparency or preventing privatization. This time, however, they are about nationalization of the entire energy sector while bringing it under democratic control at the same time. Concretely, Berlin’s power plants and the electricity net are to be bought back from Vattenfall. The sector would then be re-organized in a municipal company with a democratic business structure. The municipal company will furthermore commit to the goal of 100% renewable energy production, and a socially responsible distribution of electricity as a basic human need.

In detail, the proposed law stipulates that the public will directly elect six members of the board of directors. The employees of the energy company would elect another seven, while the final two seats would be reserved for the Berlin environment and economic ministers. Furthermore, the law also allows for direct participation in company affairs. Any initiative gathering 5.000 signatures will force the company to consult the customers on a particular issue. Company meetings can be called by neighborhood initiatives, and an ombudsman will be appointed to mediate in individual cases.

The democratization of the energy sector is not only seen as a goal in itself, but also as a means to achieve an ecologically viable relation to the environment. The proposed law therefore also bans any new investments in nuclear and coal-fired plants. Instead, investments will be put into decentralized renewable energy production as well as public energy saving programs. To secure socially just provision of energy, the company is not allowed to cut anyone off from the grid under any circumstances.

Such referendum initiatives are a great way for Berlin’s social movements to work together and make progress on a single issue. Crucially, local legislation for referenda is relatively favorable. Berlin state law forces a general vote if any organization hands in 200.000 valid signatures in a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. Gathering such numbers of signatures is a lot of work, but the effort for the referendum on water privatization has proved those targets can be met by a committed coalition of activists and organizations working together.

Berlin boasts a wide range of social and environmental movements, activist networks, trade unions and left parties. These organizations provide the core of political activists who collect signatures on the street, in colleges and at work. For example, the radical left party DIE LINKE alone plans to gather 50.000 signatures for the energy referendum. Another big part will be gathered by the traditionally strong environmental movement.

But these cores of activists could not have an impact in society with widespread support in the broader civil society for their campaign. Church groups, welfare and tenant counseling organizations as well as cultural associations often support referendum initiatives when they become a real movement united around a single issue. The energy referendum, for example, is supported by such varied institutions as Berlin’s tenants’ society (representing 150.000 members), several church groups, and the orchestra of the Berlin state opera, the ‘Staatskapelle’. The referendum campaigners have won this social base by formulating concrete demands addressing pressing needs and interests of the majority of the population while presenting themselves as a pluralist, independent coalition.

At the moment, it looks likely that the 200.000 signatures will be gathered on time for the 10th of June. And, if the vote will be held, the chances that the referendum will pass look even better. However, the Berlin state government, a coalition between the social democrats (SPD) and the Christian democrats (CDU), opposes the referendum.

While the CDU is set against the idea, the Berlin SPD pays lip service to parts of the proposal in the referendum but opposes it in government. So we cannot yet know what the government will do to avoid carrying out the communalization of Vattenfall. It seems probable that the 60 billion euro city debt and lack of federal funding will be used to declare the plan impossible.

Whether the movement will win the fight for the communalization of Vattenfall Berlin in the end or not, the referendum has already been an enormously successful campaign. It has brought many activists and previously inactive Berliners together to work on a single project they agree on. It strikes a crucial nerve with the public at the time where the entire city feels the negative consequences of Vattenfall’s practices. And, best of all, the proposed alternative has the radical potential to bring into the public imagination a positive example of what democracy could be, if it were realized in the economic sphere of life.