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EMU Crisis, Barroso and the Inter-Institutional Balance

19. December 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

The start of 2014 marks and important turn in the EU: the euro crisis seems over, everyone is getting ready for the ‘this time it is different’ election campaign for the European Parliament, and the EU has to come to grips with a new president and, possible, a new balance in the inter-institutional relations. It is this set of conditions that typify the current situation in European integration in which not all is what it seems. The reason of the current confusion is that we have not come to terms with the institutional fall out of the euro crisis.

The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to be the mother of all treaties putting an end to the need for further treaty reforms. The EP was a clear winner with new voting rights and the Commission was regarded as the main loser. The extent to which the European Council was the real institutional winner only became clear as the euro crisis advanced. Member States abhorred Barroso and his Commission so that new tasks were located elsewhere – EFSF/ESM to a special body in Luxembourg, banking control to the ECB. Yes, the Commission acquired an independent budget tsar but the real bite and the extent to which this commissioner is really independent are still in the balance. The first EU semester of Rehn gained applause; his second harvested doubts. Beyond doubt, however, seems to be the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy. Whilst Barroso was seen as a ‘pitiful coward’ who thwarted the Commission’s right of initiative, the European Council could shine under the seemingly spirited leadership of Van Rompuy.

However, the winner of the euro crisis might well be Barroso. Certainly, he has not nearly been the leader everybody had hoped for and he is known for his vanities. However, he showed himself able to play three games at the same time. First of all, he was wise enough to recognise that in the build-up of economic structures, heads of state had to come to grips with new rules – and loss of sovereignty. Therefore, he avoided collusions where there was no possibility to win. Knowing when to pick a fight is probably one of the most important characteristics of a Commission president. Secondly, he defended the traditional role of guardian of the treaties. How weak was he really? Commission president Barroso was not weak-hearted when it came to blocking state aid to sacred cows such as Opel and Citroen or to breaking up banks in Member States. France was attacked over fundamental human rights when groups of Roma were expelled – and, painful for Sarkozy, while a summit was going on and maximum press visibility was ensured. Similarly, free movement of people is defended with gusto against political pressure from countries such as Germany, UK and the Netherlands. Thirdly, Barroso reinforced the institutional relations with the European Parliament. The ‘this time it is different’ slogan is a next step in this trend. Barroso has been publicly expressing ‘governmentalisation’ ambitions and referred to commissioners as ministers in his economic governance blueprint. And European ministers need a true European Parliament.

Now that the important economic governance rules are being formulated and implemented, it is to be expected that the European Council will have less to do. Hence, the successor of Van Rompuy will be (much) less relevant. If, of course, Van Rompuy was really as relevant as seems now – he might well have provided the only fig leave behind which Merkel could hide her power. What will remain after the elections of 2014 is a stronger bond between EP and Commission and a more symbolic role for the president of the European Council. So, the EU may have a president at last: the president of the Commission.

Dutch minister for foreign affairs, Frans Timmermans, wrote in the Financial Times that he would now like to see that the Council broke into this ever closer bond between the European Parliament and the Commission. In 2009, the Benelux countries argued for a stronger role for the Commission. In view of the ‘governmentalisation’ of the Commission, the Dutch now argue in favour of strengthening the European Council. This may well be a big compliment to Barroso: the ‘weak president’ has thwarted the inter-institutional balance.
Before 2008, the EU basically consisted of the internal market and was based on the community method. At the start of 2014, the EU consists of two veritable pillars: the internal market and the political economic governance pillar where Commission and EP are looking for a different (political) ball game all together. Of course, the euro crisis has been hugely instrumental in this development. Yet, judging by the results, the position of the Commission under Barroso has certainly not been marginalised. History may well be kinder to him than his current critics.

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.”

Will France Become like the Netherlands or the Netherlands like France?

28. May 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (1)

To understand the euro project we need to go back to 1989 and the frustrations over exchange rate adaptations under the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). France was frustrated by the hard Deutsch Mark and, occasionally, lost billions on aligning the FF to the DM. Mitterrand used the German unification as a lever to get Kohl to accept the euro. This was regarded by the Dutch with grave worries for various reasons. In essence, the euro is a French project.

For one, the Dutch, together with the Germans, wanted at least to ensure that the euro would be a hard currency and demanded the Maastricht criteria, the SGP and an independent ECB. The demand for rules to reinforce economic institutions continues and resulted of late in an ‘independent Commissioner’ and semi-automatic sanctions. The euro may have a French pedigree but was supposed to become German/Dutch and, with that, ‘southern’ Europeans would/should become like the Germans/Dutch. One of the most recent steps in this effort was the line in the six pack that all countries should have an independent budgetary authority. The Dutch have such a prestigious economic analysis bureau but in France this function has been part of the Ministry of Finance. Strong economic governance goes together with strong, independent, rule-bound and transparent institutions.

The Netherlands is now in a recession and economic prospects seem to be gloomy for some time to come. To be able to reform, the Dutch need to rely on their proven social ‘polder-model’ and recently a social pact between employers and employees was agreed on and supported by the government. However, the government did not want the independent budgetary control office to examine the consequences of this social pact nor its implications for the 3% rule. Moreover, this control office recently had a shift in leadership and a top civil from the ministry of finance was appointed. The new director may be extremely competent but the image of independence is endangered. Moreover, Prime Minister Rutte spoke out to be optimistic about economic prospects. Yet, over-optimism has been one of the most annoying characteristic of politicians when it comes to reliable statements about the SGP criteria. Recently Hollande also presented a brighter economic future for France than Olli Rehn. In the debate for EP on 7 May, Dijsselbloem ̶ albeit it as chair of the Eurogroup ̶ emphasised that we should not examine the weakness of banks until the eurozone has the resolution mechanisms in place. Hence, the message seems to be, let us postpone the facts until we think we are ready. Is it wise to circumvent facts, to thwart the image of independence and not to analyse major reform proposals?

Rumsfeld once stated that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but the eurozone has invented the ‘unknowns we’d rather not know’. The French had a political perspective on the fiscal policy whereas the Germans and Dutch stood for rationality. As it now seems, the euro is not changing Hollande into Kohl, but it might make the Netherlands more French.

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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