France and Germany proposed a new way forward for the coordination of economic governance in the European Union. The proposal may be ambitious in scope, but is minimal on detail – the leaked document contains one (1) page only. So how to interpret this?
First of all I am really surprised by the mentoring attitude of Merkel and Sarkozy at the European Council meeting. Wall Street Journal quotes Yves Leterme, the Belgian prime minister:
“There were 18, 19 countries who spoke up to make known their regret on the way it was presented and also on the content. It was truly a surreal summit.”
This misstep will obviously diminish the chance for quick success of the negotiations. Apart from the tactics, however, I am much more interested in the emerging legal obstacles to any compromise. The problem is that too much EU law stands in the way of the proposal in its present form.
The scope of the proposed measures is huge – raising retirement ages across the euro zone, abolishing indexation of wages to inflation, harmonizing corporate and other taxes and instituting a “debt brake” that limits the ability of governments to borrow to fund their spending. Nevertheless, France and Germany seem to believe that this can be done without a proper reform of the Treaties, in some sort of Schengen-like legal framework.
First it’s worth investigating whether the proposals can be introduced as an enhanced cooperation (art. 326 – art. 334 TFEU). Such cooperation must not undermine the internal market or economic, social and territorial cohesion. It must not constitute a barrier to or discrimination in trade between Member States or distort competition between them (art. 326 TFEU). These legal restrictions must be interpreted carefully, and a program to raise the competitiveness of certain Member States may well violate them. An enhanced cooperation also involves a proposal by the Commission and the consent of the European Parliament. It’s approved by the Council with a unanimous vote (art. 329, para. 2 TFEU).
But another way forward may be a Schengen-like legal framework, initially external to EU law. In this case, however, I believe that it must also comply with the criteria set for enhanced cooperation – i.e. it should not undermine the internal market or economic, social and territorial cohesion, and it should not distort competition between Member States. These criteria will be difficult to meet provided that the very purpose of the measures is to improve the competitiveness of the participating Member States. Additionally, it looks like France and Germany do rely on the Commission and the European Systemic Risk Board to perform some functions in this new framework. I can’t imagine how this can be done without someone (for example, the UK), raising the question of the funding of such initiatives by the EU budget. The European Parliament could also have some objections to this.
The most likely (and the slowest) option is Treaty revision. It is also the most legitimate way forward (and maybe the only legal one). True, it would lead to a lot of bargaining and time loss, but it would also bring stability and legal security to this new framework.
Having said this, it’s obvious that some measures must be taken. It’s just that proposing measures without thinking about their legal ramifications is not a good sign for their success. After all, we are talking about unprecedented levels of economic governance coordination. Trying to circumvent Treaty reform may not work simply due to the scale of the proposals.