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The Commission and the European Semester: is the Fox Guarding the Chicken?

5. June 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

2013 is a pivotal year for Commissioner Rehn, the European Semester and the Commission. All three have had to prove their legitimacy regarding economic governance. Rehn’s credibility and that of the European Semester centre on the reputation of the Commission and that of DG EcFin in particular. Given the importance of the European Semester, it is important that there are no doubts about the independence and the quality of Olli Rehn as Commissioner. To save the euro project and the trust people have in the Commission in euro-related processes, it was decided in 2011 to create the post of an ‘independent’ Commissioner to supervise the Stability and Growth Pact. The famous six-pack and two-pack have reinforced the role of the independent Commissioner who now has the power to monitor and even fine Member States. The Commission’s unshaken reputation is crucial, if it wants stand up to criticism in the media and by peers and (Nobel-prize winning) economists.
Alas, the Commission does not stand the test of quality and of independence. As a result, the criticism on this year’s reports and recommendations has been overly political – for example concerning the extra year France received to bring its deficit down – and cannot be brushed aside.

When trying to understand the process through which the ‘independent’ Commissioner has operated, we stumble upon questions concerning the procedure the country reports are actually written by the Commission. First of all, there is the issue of other Commissioners making public statements about Rehn’s work. The remarks by Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani who openly criticised Rehn’s emphasis on austerity and those made by Commission President Barroso, that the boundaries of the public acceptance of austerity have been reached, have resulted in any statements by the Commission and hence Olli Rehn being put in a political perspective. Secondly, DG Ecfin does not write the reports independently but needs input from other DGs and hence has to work with colleagues who, for example, fall under Commissioner Tajani’s authority. Thus, Rehn’s reputation depends on more than just DG Ecfin’s work but also on the negotiations among DGs. Thirdly, we do not exactly know what happens with the reports from DG Ecfin once they are passed on to the College of Commissioners. Even officials from DG Ecfin were surprised about changes made in texts. Apparently, there is a lack of transparency at this stage within the Commission.

Fourthly, other Commissioners are allowed to pose questions concerning the reports and recommendations in the College which suggests that there are discussions on the proposals put forward by Rehn before adoption by the College. In addition, Barroso is advised by a senior economic advisor (a newly created post) who is apparently in a position to second- guess the work of Rehn as independent Commissioner. Generally speaking, Rehn wears at least two hats: that of independent Commissioner concerning the excessive deficit procedure and that of ‘normal’ Commissioner (as one among equals in the College) concerning the structural imbalances procedure.

Hence, Rehn’s position in the college is complicated and far from transparent. The six-pack dictates that Member States have to have an independent budgetary authority. Strangely enough, this requirement does not apply to the Commission (DG Ecfin) itself. As a result, we are stuck with a semi-trustworthy European Semester. The Commission confuses its functions as independent economic analyst and its ambition to operate as economic government of the EU.

Reputation is a key factor in advanced economic societies. The Commission does not seem to care about the reputation of the ‘independent’ Commissioner. If it did, it could separate data gathering (Eurostat – also falling under the College of Commissioners), data analysis (DG Ecfin), policy advice (the College) and monitoring (DG Ecfin). Now, all these functions, including the political aspects, remain combined. This situation is unacceptable in view of the required transparency, the promised independence and basic principles of good governance to separate policy from analysis and from supervision. Yet, it is well recorded that the Commission is not very fond of putting its tasks at arm’s length in independent agencies.

Power seems to be more important than reputation. It is high time the Commission re-examines its organisation in the light of the demands of a reliable European Semester process. It remains doubtful whether the Commission will be happy to accept the consequences. It seems to prefer to operate as the fox guarding the chickens.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Frau Merkel and the ‘C-Word’

5. June 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

Both the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have just published findings about the performance of the German economy and the state of structural reforms. While there is plenty of discussions in Berlin about what ‘the others’ (in particular France) are not getting right, there is not much of a debate on what ‘the others’ (Commission and IMF) suggest that Germany is or is not getting right. The new findings did not get much attention in the public debate.

Not surprisingly perhaps, as both reports continue what sounds like good news and point out that Germany’s public finances have been overall sound. The IMF underlines that Germany’s “safe haven status and strong balance sheets” has been an “anchor of stability” during the eurozone recovery. When it comes to the recommendations, however, the IMF experts do again not shy away from getting involved with the politics of the euro crisis, welcoming this year’s marginal loosening of the fiscal stance: “(…) fiscal over-performance should be firmly avoided as it could imply a contractionary fiscal stance that is unwarranted in the current low growth environment.”

The Commission is more cautious on the question that has been dominating the eurozone debate for the past months: is Germany that is leading on fiscal consolidation (which makes it look like the teacher’s pet, something Chancellor Merkel was so pleased about in her home country) the real burden to the eurozone? It is hardly surprising that the Commission avoids this hot issue, since the report is a mere recommendation to the Council of Ministers. And, arguably, the Commission diligently follows a rather narrow mandate in assessing German fiscal policy and its 2013 national reform programme. However, against the background of a fierce debate (mostly resonating outside of Germany) on how to trigger jobs and growth in the eurozone the European Commission’s proposals look rather innocent. Frau Merkel, of course, will have been pleased not only with the findings, but also with the fact that the Commission basically restricted itself to inserting the data they collected in the Member States into tables without spending too much time on interpreting them.

The IMF underlines Germany’s crucial role in shaping the future institutional and legal framework of the eurozone. This reads like a hardly veiled criticism on Chancellor Merkel’s so far rather woolly ideas. Just last week, her joint proposal with President Hollande on establishing the function of a permanent president for the eurozone raised eyebrows even within her coalition in Berlin. While I believe it was right to respond to the French initiative launched by President Hollande, as I suggested in my previous blog piece, Merkel should not underestimate the attention she gets for such moves. She might have considered it as a friendly yet half-hearted response to the bruised neighbour, likely to end up watered down or even abandoned the moment its gets on the agenda of the 27 members. But Merkel should know that any move that might shed light on where Germany wants to take the eurozone is taken rather seriously these days and tactical moves are likely to be met with indignation.

Another more telling intervention of Angela Merkel received attention this week. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL the chancellor reiterated what has become in my opinion the word around which she develops her construction plan for Europe: coordination. In her world, the Commission president has a “coordinating function over the policies of the national governments” and therefore should continue to be nominated by the heads of state and government (with a certain role for the European Parliament to play). No more transfer of competencies to the Commission, but improved coordination in policy areas that can strengthen the competitiveness of the eurozone. Read again her Bruges speech of 2010 – it is pretty much in there already.

Needless to say that Merkel’s “c-word” has been a declaration of war to those who carry the “f-word” banner (in the continental, not the British understanding of federalism) advocating for strong and independent EU institutions. A widely overlooked decision: the heads of state used a clause in the Lisbon Treaty and agreed to keep one Commissioner for each Member State at the recent May summit. While this was only a formal adoption of a decision previously being granted to Ireland, Chancellor Merkel was surely pleased. After all, the European party families are gearing up their campaigns for the European Parliament elections in 2014 with joint candidates for the post of the Commission president. What a nightmare for the ‘c-lady’ to imagine a democratically legitimised president of the European Commission representing the majority in the EP, presiding over a reduced college of Commissioners. What would the reports of such a more independent figure have looked like?

After the questionable results of the “open methods of coordination” in the Lisbon Strategy of 2000 – will coordination as a mode of governance get its second wind? Frau Merkel is taking the lead in its revival.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Help the Bruised French out of the Corner!

23. May 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (1)

There has been a lot of bad news last week: the Eurozone is further contracting, France is moving into recession and the EU has been dramatically losing support all across Europe according to figures published in a Pew poll.

Watching President Hollande’s Élysée address one year into his presidency one saw a cornered head of state fighting for his survival at home and against a growing mistrust in Europe towards the French willingness and ability to reform. Not surprisingly, President Hollande, in a desperate attempt to lift the spirits of his fellow Frenchmen, started off his speech with the French leadership in Mali. Not surprisingly, the French president then tried to gain ground vis-à-vis the dominant German neighbour by coming up with a ‘European initiative’: a real economic government, a strategy for investment, a European Energy Community and a eurozone budget. While there might be doubts about the depth and the impact of his proposals one has to acknowledge that the French president did come out of the corner.

In Berlin, however, one hears a lot of derisive commentary about France these days and there are indeed clearly different views about the future architecture of the eurozone. But I saw a man who believed in what he said, who warned that the recession caused by austerity was threatening the very identity of Europe. A President who insisted that his country had made its choice for Europe right from the start, who in the course of the crisis has been trying to “shake things up in Europe” and who is increasingly frustrated about the lack of response from Berlin. A frustration that is likely to expand also to his social democratic friends in the SPD, despite Hollande’s presence during the celebrations of the SPD’s 150th birthday this week. Hollande is watching his country being put into the camp of the ‘poor southerners’ and being publicly accused by the President of the European Commission of not understanding the opportunities of globalisation. What a humiliation for a proud nation to being graciously awarded an extra two years to cut down its deficit – in terms of communication I found this a disaster.
We have got to the point where a public blame game is going on that undermines and disempowers even the most potent leaders in Europe – how does this create the urgently needed trust among citizens that their politicians will eventually manage to find a way out of the crisis?

In all this – and it feels almost absurd living and working here – Berlin still feels like an island of peace. Recession? Didn’t the most recent numbers suggest that the German economy continued to grow, albeit mildly? And doesn’t the minor growth rate support the chancellor’s argument made continuously during the crisis that Germany cannot lift the rest of the eurozone on its own? A lack of citizens’ support? Doesn’t Germany score best in the Pew poll, with 60 per cent of Germans still in favour of the EU despite taxpayers’ money being used for the bailouts?

I wonder if Angela Merkel sometimes wakes up in the morning and asks herself whether she is Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice’s fantasy world, Merkel’s Berlin is full of absurdities these days. As the crisis is threatening to tear the union apart, Frau Merkel enjoys a never ending round dance around herself and an abundance of what I would like to call ‘conversations of comfort’. Not that it is her who actively triggers them – they just seem to happen. Just last month she conversed with the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the proud representation of Deutsche Bank in Berlin. Just having published a biography on Merkel’s foreign policy Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, led the conversation: no drama, no real challenge, just pleasure and comfort and agreement, and the Polish Prime Minister doing the job for Merkel by raving about pretty much anything Merkel and German. The venue was packed on this occasion and politics, business and the media gathering all seemed to be a bit in love with the lady that holds court in the most non-courting way: she just sat there and enjoyed it as seemingly everybody else. A few days later, it felt like the whole of Europe was hanging on her every word when Frau Merkel conversed with the editors of a women’s magazine in a trendy Berlin theatre, chatting about cooking and what she likes in men.

When are the media starting to do their job properly? I really hope for German and French national televisions to gang up and convince Merkel and Hollande to battle it out openly in a TV duel. One of Merkel’s ways of dealing with potentially uncomfortable adversaries is by simply ignoring them – a strategy that seems to work and make her look even stronger. With a few exceptions, she hasn’t even given her social democratic challenger Peer Steinbrück the dignity of a direct address yet. The worst thing that can happen to Hollande in his attempt to contribute to the future architecture of the eurozone now is to be ignored by the German Chancellor. Berlin should know its responsibilities.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Blog Authors

Adriaan SchoutAdriaan Schout

Dr Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research/Europe at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International relations. (read more...)

Alexandre AbreuAlexandre Abreu

Dr Alexandre Abreu is a 33-year-old Portuguese economist with a PhD from the University of London. Currently he is a lecturer in Development Economics at the Institute of Economics and Business Administration, Technical University of Lisbon, and a Researcher at the Centre for African and Development Studies of the same University.

Almut MöllerAlmut Möller

Almut Möller is a political analyst in European integration and European foreign policy. She is currently the head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. (read more...)

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