By Robin Kunst
With the EU parliamentary elections only weeks away, it is time for a critical analysis of the direction of the EU. The financial pressure in the aftermath of the fiscal crisis has challenged the process of European integration. Propelled by the media, protests can be heard, blaming the better off countries–especially Germany–for their current crises.
It is true that the economically more stable countries give recommendations to countries like Greece on how to balance their national budget, and the European Central Bank (ECB) demands austerity measures as conditions for loans. This and the common perception that most of the pressure to save crisis-ridden countries has fallen on the middle classes adds to the widespread frustration with the EU.
While the crisis led to more cooperation among foreign leaders, something has been ignored – the will of the people. EU critics have been arguing for years that the power distribution in favor of the European Council, comprised of heads of states, at the expense of the European Parliament, the only part of the EU that is directly elected, causes a democratic deficit. As a result of the crisis, this deficit reached a new level. Bailout measures and institutions initiated to save the value of the euro turned into permanent mechanisms that are under no democratic or public oversight whatsoever.
The ECB already influences national economies by dictating conditions of austerity and a balanced budget. The creation of the permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which was created in May 2010 and was just extended last year, reinforces this new framework of economic governance. The ESM is the permanent crisis solution for members of the Eurozone; it is a financial institution in Luxembourg over which neither the European Parliament nor national parliaments have any control. The same is true for the Troika – the body comprised of the ECB, IMF and EU Commission. These bodies do not have to justify their policy recommendations and conditions in front of any democratically elected institution. Their bureaucracy oversees and determines austerity and reform measures in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal – the three EU countries suffering the most economically. The decisions made by Troika and the ESM have far reaching consequences for the individual countries, as well as for the EU as a whole and all its citizens. It remains questionable as to why they are not held accountable for their actions as national leaders and parliaments would be.
Recent court decisions have dealt with this question. In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court doubted the admissibility of the ECB’s unlimited ability to purchase government bonds of illiquid countries. The German court came to the conclusion that the decision should be made by European Court of Justice. The European Court of Justice now has to determine if ECB’s actions are legal in the European context. This referral of the decision to the European Court of Justice is a step forward, as it makes the EU more democratic by giving the European Court the ability to check its financial institution. However, this decision has been met with skepticism by European advocates.
The court’s ruling has been criticized by many German and EU politicians, who claim that it hinders European stability and integration efforts. These politicians intentionally ignore the fact that national courts are not bound by any obligation to obey a certain party’s idea of what is best for their nation regarding this European issue. Moreover, the courts simply decide according to their conscience to decide what is legal, as national constitutions intend. Critics conveniently oversee the fact that the EU Commission and Council intentionally break the rules of the Maastricht Treaty, which actually prohibits countries from providing guarantees on behalf of other defaulting countries by making themselves liable. By doing so, the EU politicians just add to the growing public frustration with its representatives and encourage the Euro-skeptic perception of the technocratic, contradicting nature of EU bureaucracy. These claims are usually brushed aside with the argument that the Eurozone crisis demanded exceptional measures.
It is clear that at the beginning of the crisis, when their monetary union began to crumble, urgent measures had to be undertaken in order to restore economic stability within the European Union. Nevertheless, these decisions and institutions, born out of the need for immediate action, must adopt democratic forms to be legitimate instruments for continued European integration and expansion. Unfortunately, national leaders in the EU take the lead in the decision making process and thus undermine the European Parliament’s authority.
Hope lies in the upcoming elections where, for the first time, the newly directly elected European Parliament will determine the President of the Commission, the EU’s executive leader who is in charge of initiating legislation and overseeing its implementation. Before, the office simply rotated among the various countries. Now, all major European parties will promote top candidates, and the party with the most votes will provide the President of the Commission. This gives more legitimacy to the office of the President and also allows for a different perception of the election. The role of the Commission and Parliament will now be given more meaning and legitimacy, and the Parliament’s say in decisions will not be so easily ignored. For the first time, decisions can be made together in a cooperative European context. National leaders will be forced to find ways to promote their domestic political interest against the backdrop of a European framework. They will have to justify their decisions not only in front of their national constituency, but also on a European platform.
Even if the upcoming elections are a step towards overcoming growing public frustration with the EU, the Eurozone crisis still aggravated the gap between rich and poor. It has led to the rise of nationalistic groups, especially in richer countries, who demand the return to their former national currencies. These voices take advantage of a growing anti-European sentiment, which is tied to the economic downturn. Populists continuously argue for dissociation from European unity, which encompasses fiscal and economic interrelationships. Right-wing parties are experiencing a remarkable upswing, as demonstrated in the latest municipal elections in France. The ruling Socialist Party under President Hollande suffered a stinging defeat against the conservative opposition, and the right-wing extremist Front National performed surprisingly well. However, a break with existing interrelationships and European treaties would only exacerbate further economic downturns and cause defaults of entire national economies. It remains to be seen how growing frustration with the system will play out in the future, especially in regards to further national elections that might indicate satisfaction or discontent with the current policies of the EU. It is clear though, that with growing anti-European sentiment, Brussels has to face yet another challenge in the upcoming elections.
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