When Berliners voted to protect Tempelhofer Feld as a public park in 2014, it was seen as a key success for direct democracy.
But less than two years later, the Berlin senate overturned the decision to allow construction on the site, saying it was necessary to build housing for refugees.
So what have refugees gained through this decision? Is it really as simple as refugee housing vs. public park? And how come politicians can so easily overturn decisions made by the public? We spoke to a member of the campaign that wants to give direct democracy a greater voice in Berlin.
Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: Kalle Kuikkaniemi
What’s the point of a referendum?
‘A referendum to save referenda’ sounds like just the kind of bureaucracy headache new Berliners have come to expect in the Hauptstadt.
But the campaign pushing to make this referendum a reality says that Berlin’s politicians are too easily able to cancel laws made by referenda when the outcome doesn’t suit their political agendas. That’s an issue that we should all care about.
The Volksentscheid retten (Save the Referendum) campaign aims to make it more difficult for politicians to overturn decisions made by public referendum.
Currently the Senate can thwart a law that was made by referendum without public consultation, meaning that although the public may have spent time, energy and resources on supporting a law change, it can all be undone within a matter of weeks.
Volksentscheid retten proposes that if the Senate wishes to cancel a law made by referendum, they must first give the public a chance to protect the law it voted on. They have suggested a policy of allowing the public four months to collect 50,000 signatures if they wish to block the decision – a system that’s already working well in Hamburg.
If the public wishes to support this move, spokesperson Esther Witt says they have until the end of May to sign the petition.
**update** The Volksentscheid retten succeeded in collecting 25,000 signatures in 25 days – a record. Now they are aiming for 50,000 signatures to put more power behind their movement. So if you’re reading this after May, but you’d still like to support their cause, it’s still worth signing the petition.
Esther Witt at the Volksentscheid retten office on Oranienplatz. Photo: Vanessa Ellingham
“For the past 10 years it’s been possible to make referenda on certain topics,” she explains. “It’s been a great way to participate in the city’s decision-making.”
“There was one about the privatisation of water, another about Tempelhofer Feld which was successful and the field was protected as a public park. There’s another one coming up about making the city more bike-friendly.”
But what are all these ideas and movements worth if politicians can simply block them at the drop of a hat?
“It’s currently still a blind spot in the political system,” says Witt. “A referendum takes about two years, and you have to go through three stages, along with an education campaign, because you have to convince the whole city that your issue is important.”
It’s a significant amount of work, which often faces opposition from powerful politicians. The Berlin Senate recently passed a bill that allows politicians to finance their own campaign against a referendum using taxpayer money.
“If you’re successful, your referendum creates a new law. But the problem is, a law made that way that doesn’t necessarily have a majority in the parliament.”
That was the problem with the referendum on Tempelhofer Feld.
Almost 65 percent of Berlin voters ticked the box to protect the field as a public park, rather than allow construction on the site for housing developments and a public library, as proposed by the Senate.
But just one-and-a-half years later, politicians voted to axe the law, citing the need for refugee housing as the reason for the change.
Refugees a trump card in “hippie” Berlin
If you want to convince Berliners of the necessity of your plan, co-opting the refugee argument is an excellent place to start.
When the Tempelhofer Feld campaign succeeded, conservative newspaper Die Welt’s deputy editor had written that “in the Prussian capital, hippie culture is state policy.”
He may have been angry about this, but he wasn’t wrong: for Berliners, the desire to reserve a public park larger than the state of Monaco for free outdoor activity and community projects could only be beaten by a small handful of hot button political issues: housing for refugees was a worthy opponent.
Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: Kalle Kuikkaniemi
Despite two years of dedicated campaigning for the Tempelhofer Feld referendum, Witt says even she could see that providing housing for refugees was more important than preserving the field as a public park.
“At first, when I saw that, I was like, ‘ah yeah, I do love the park, I did a whole two-year campaign about it! But obviously there are people in need and you cannot weigh those things up against each other’.”
But then Berlin’s Refugee Council condemned the treatment of refugees at the Tempelhof Airport shelter, saying the housing violates basic living conditions.
The council exposed a lack of facilities for maintaining basic hygiene, fire risks and that a large number of refugee children had not yet been placed in school – about 800 in November 2015.
Until recently residents were still being bussed elsewhere to take showers, as there were inadequate facilities on site.
Berlin’s Refugee Council said that the Tempelhof Airport shelter’s “extremely cramped and totally inadequately-equipped dormitories promote aggression” and it came as no surprise when violence broke out in the shelter.
So far the only construction made since the referendum law was overturned has been a flimsy flower hall built on the airport apron that, after construction, was found to not have a proper building permit. The decision on what to do with this construction will not be made before December this year.
Refugees are yet to see any benefit from the decision. And the Senate’s case only gets worse.
Just a year after the referendum, Berlin’s new mayor Michael Müller was already saying that he wanted to discuss whether Tempelhofer Feld could be built on, using slightly different plans. This was before the airport was optioned as a shelter, and before what is now referred to as the ‘refugee crisis’.
“It’s really an administration crisis,” says Witt, “not a refugee one.”
“It’s easy to take refugees, the homeless, poor elderly people, and play them around as if they have to fight for a slice of the cake. But that’s not the case. We do have the money. We’re one of the richest countries in the world.”
How can you help?
If you don’t have German citizenship then you aren’t eligible to sign the petition to move the referendum campaign to the next stage, a “structural injustice” that Witt says the campaign wishes to tackle in the future.
Currently there are 620,000 non-German Berliners who can’t have a say on local issues.
But there are other ways to support the movement.
Photo: Volksentscheid retten
“We need people who are passionate about this cause who can say, ‘I could give two hours, one time only, to help collect signatures,” says Witt.
“Two people without German citizenship collected thousands of signatures for the Tempelhofer Feld referendum. We couldn’t have done it without them, so it makes a big difference.”
Vanessa Ellingham is the Give Something Back to Berlin blog editor.