Berlin and Hamburg Referenda to Reverse Electricity Grid Privatization

March.Germany’s two biggest cities are on course to re-nationalize their electricity grids. In both Berlin and Hamburg, citizen coalitions have successfully forced referenda to re-organize their cities’ distribution of electricity in municipal companies. Backed by widespread opposition to the ongoing privatization of public goods, the coalitions “Unser Hamburg, Unser Netz” and the “Berliner Energietisch” now pose a serious threat to multinationals E.On and Vattenfall. The referendum campaigns have started to play a significant role at the start of the campaign for the federal parliamentary elections, to be held on September 22.

On Wednesday, June 11, the “Berliner Energietisch” officially surpassed the required signature threshold. 265,000 eligible voters supported their referendum, obligating the Berlin state government to put the proposal up to a vote. The opposition in parliament, made up of the green, left and pirate parties, propose that the Berlin referendum take place alongside the general election. The state government, a coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU), opposes the campaign. Despite the fact that Social Democrats pay lip service to parts of the proposal, it will likely try to avoid carrying it out its content as a coalition partner in government. But, should the Berlin government try to postpone the vote, it will have to justify millions in additional expenses for another election day.

In Hamburg, the coalition “Unser Hamburg, Unser Netz” has already gathered over 115,000 signatures out of a population of 1.7 million in June 2011. The referendum has been postponed as the Christian Democrats tried to block it with a lawsuit at the federal constitutional court. The judge, however, declared the referendum to be legitimate in March 2013. Meanwhile, Hamburg’s Social Democratic state government has bought 25.1% of the shares in the grid for almost 550 million from primary shareholders Vattenfall and E.On. “Unser Netz” rejects the government’s move as insufficient, arguing that a serious expansion of renewable energy would run counter to the multinationals’ core business interests in non-renewable energy sources. Despite these complications, the Hamburg referendum is still set to take place on September 22. And now that the sister initiative in Berlin has enjoyed a similar success, the movement has started to shift the debate on energy transition from sustainable technology to ecologically viable business models across the federal republic.

The referendum coalitions can be assured of broad public support. Polls by Forsa and the Hamburger Abendblatt indicate that over 60% would vote in favor of re-nationalization in both cities. The scope of active participation during the signature drives has been similarly impressive. Although initiated by environmentalists, leftists and trade unionists, the twin campaigns also include tenants’ associations (the biggest one has 150.000 members in Berlin), church groups, and even the orchestra of a Berlin state opera, the “Staatskapelle.” The referendum campaigners have won this social base by formulating concrete demands addressing pressing needs and interests of the 99% while organizing themselves in a pluralist, independent coalition.

In the last couple of years, German social movements have started a series of referendum initiatives, especially in Berlin. The most successful referendum in Berlin demanded the publication of the secret contract regulating the 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 other such referenda are also under way in the German capital. One has been started to counter privatization of the regional train system S-Bahn. Another promising referendum campaign aims to keep the former airport Tempelhof intact as a public recreational space.

Until recently, such referenda limited themselves to transparency or preventing privatization. However, the positive reactions and experience of earlier referendum campaigns have now encouraged activists to raise more far-reaching demands. The “Berliner Energietisch” now wants the city to buy back the electricity grid from Vattenfall for 400 million euros and bring it under democratic management as well. The grid operator BEWAG would then be re-organized as a municipal company with a democratic business structure. Furthermore, the new municipal company would commit to fostering 100% renewable energy production in the state of Berlin, and a distribute electricity with social responsibility as a basic human need.

In detail, the Berlin draft bill stipulates that the general public will elect six members of the fifteen-strong board of directors. The municipal company’s employees would elect another seven, while the Berlin environment and economic ministers would occupy the final two seats. Furthermore, the law also allows for direct participation in company policy. Citizen initiatives gathering at least 5.000 signatures could make the company consult its 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 seen not only as a goal in itself, but also as a means to achieve an ecologically viable relation to the environment. The bill therefore also bans new investments in nuclear and coal-fired plants. All investments will instead be made in 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 proving a great way for Germany’s social movements and civil society 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 173,000 valid signatures, or 7% of 2.4 million eligible voters. In Hamburg, the threshold is 60,000 signatures, or 5% of 1.2 million voters. Gathering so many signatures is a lot of work, but the latest successes have proved once and for all that such targets can be met by a committed coalition of activists and organizations working together.

In any case, a victory at the ballot box will not be the end of the political battle over Berlin’s and Hamburg’s electricity grids. The experience of the Berlin water referendum is a case in point. In 2011, the former state government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the Socialist Left party, only published parts of the privatization contract after the referendum passed at the polls. And, even if the electricity referenda are passed, the newly founded municipal company would have to compete with other companies for a license to control the grid, a process in which state governments have the final say. So far, the Berlin and Hamburg governments have either opposed the referenda or tried to placate the movements with half-hearted compromises.

But whether the movements will win the fight for communal grids in the end or not, the referenda have already been surprisingly successful campaigns. They have brought thousands of activists and formerly inactive people together to work on a common project. It strikes a crucial nerve with the public at the time when the public is fed-up with privatization. And, best of all, it has started a lively debate on the kinds of economic organization that we will need to achieve a healthy relation to our natural environment as well as social justice.

Portions of this article have already appeared at Democracy at Work.