Thursday, 30 July 2015

National parliaments and the “Five Presidents’ Report’: The long road towards the democratization of EMU




Ton van den Brink, Associate Professor, University of Utrecht

The recent ‘Five Presidents’ Report’ contains far-reaching proposals to deepen the EU’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), which have been analyzed here. These proposals also have far reaching consequences for national parliaments. The much needed democratization of the EMU requires national parliaments to be assigned with stronger rights than the proposed intensification of ‘dialogues’.

What is at stake for national parliaments? The report proposes to come to a ‘system of further sovereignty sharing within common institutions’ (p. 5). This system would include, inter alia, a further Europeanization of economic policy coordination, aimed at economic convergence of the Euro area. To that end, the European Semester would be restructured and national ‘Competitiveness Authorities’ would be set up in the Eurozone Member States. The proposals to establish a Fiscal Union include the creation of an advisory European Fiscal Board and a common macroeconomic stabilisation function to ‘better deal with shocks that cannot be managed at the national level alone’. This last element is similar to the tax authority proposed by German Minister Gabriel and French Minister Macron as part of their plea for a radical integration of the Eurozone. It is unclear, however, how the more long term perspective of creating a European treasury would relate to national treasuries.

There are more unclarities which make it difficult to assess how national parliaments would exactly be affected. The European Fiscal Board would, for instance, only have an advisory role. The general direction of the proposals is, however, clear. The proposals would increase control of EU institutions over national policies. Thus, a further Europeanization of economic policy making would be the result. Second, the technocratic nature of decision making would be strengthened. The further expansion of ‘rule-based cooperation’ and the mandates of the new bodies would significantly contribute thereto.

Europeanization and technocratization pose challenges for national parliaments. These are not addressed, even though the report underlines that democratic legitimacy and accountability should be the corner stones of the EMU. The proposals in this regard do not add much to the already existing ‘six-pack’ and ‘two-pack’ arrangements and in any case do not extend beyond ‘streamlining’ procedures and the strengthening of ‘dialogues’.

The answer to these challenges cannot be the European Parliament, at least not the European Parliament alone. It is true that the executive federalism that may be witnessed in the field of economic policies requires a better position for the European Parliament as well. But the European Parliament cannot substitute national parliaments in economic policy making. First, there is no real solution for the role of the European Parliament - representing citizens from 28 Member States - in decision making on measures that are limited to the Euro area. Second, a substantial part of economic policy making is country specific. This will remain so, even though the Five Presidents’ report contains proposals to strengthen the euro area wide dimension of economic policy making. National parliaments certainly qualify as the most obvious institutions to exercise democratic control over the country specific part of economic policy making in the EU. Thirdly, national parliaments’ constitutional rights are affected in a very concrete manner by the proposals. Thus, strengthening their role would also contribute to compensating that loss.

Taxation and budget rights are among the most concrete constitutional rights that are at stake for national parliaments. The right to decide on the national budget implies budget autonomy. The German constitutional court, in its decision on the constitutionality of the ESM-Treaty, ruled that: ‘Deciding on public revenue and public expenditure is a fundamental part of the ability of a constitutional state to democratically shape itself. In this context, the right to decide on the budget is a central element for shaping opinions in a democratic society’. 

Thus, the German constitution (as well as the constitutional systems of many other Member States) would not allow the national budget right to be relinquished altogether. Although the German constitutional courts accepted the possibility of – even significant – limitations to national budget autonomy, a suspension thereof for at least a considerable period of time, would be considered unconstitutional by the German constitutional court. The creation of a Macroeconomic Stability Function would need to pass this test before it could be created. What is more, the Court made it clear that it had formulated only minimum conditions and stressed the discretion of the German legislature ‘to weigh whether and to what extent, in order to preserve some discretion for democratic management and decision-making, one should enter into commitments regarding future spending behaviour and therefore – correspondingly – accept a restriction of one’s discretion for democratic management and decision-making in the present’.

Closely related (but in various constitutional systems recognized as a separate right) is the right to decide on taxation. The constitutional significance of this right, as well as its “sovereignty-sensitivity” have made it impossible thus far to come to supranational taxes. The feasibility of a Euro area wide treasury – whatever its exact form – is, thus, highly questionable.

The position of national parliaments is also at stake with regard to macroeconomic policies, which have redistributive effects. Specific national constitutional guarantees are generally lacking in this area, but a Europeanization of these policies is still particularly troublesome. This has to do with the lack of common substantive principles or rules. Unlike fiscal policies – which are ‘rule-based’, such as the 3% rule - macroeconomic policies are essentially political decisions, e.g on how labour markets and pension systems must be reformed and whether and how national investment climates must be improved.

In this light, the proposals from the Five Presidents’ report are too meagre for national parliaments to ensure effective democratic control. It has to be acknowledged that - should all of the plans indeed be realized - national parliaments would be limited in their national decision making capacities on fiscal and economic policies. This limitation of decision-making power should be compensated by adequate accountability rights. It would therefore be far from sufficient to organize plenary debates between the EP and the Commission and streamline the interaction between the Commission and national parliaments and between the European Parliament and national parliaments.

The relationship between the Commission and national parliaments should be the starting point for strengthening the position of the latter. It is one thing to get the EU Commissioner to the national parliament to discuss country-specific recommendations, but without the possibilities of sanctions this remains an empty shell. The rules that have been developed in the context of EU legislative procedures (most notably with regard to subsidiarity scrutiny) may offer inspiration here. The right to make the Commission reconsider a legislative proposal could, for instance, be applied in the context of economic and fiscal policies as well: the national parliament at issue could be empowered with the right to object to country-specific recommendations which would lead to obligation for the Commission to reconsider these. In case of the macroeconomic stabilisation function the existing mechanisms of cooperation between national parliaments in the context of subsidiarity scrutiny could offer inspiration. This could be linked to the right of assent for - a qualified majority of – national parliaments.

The exact shaping of national parliaments’ rights is, however, essentially a second order issue. To get to that issue, it first needs to be acknowledged that a genuinely democratic EMU requires national parliaments to have more at their disposal than the right to be informed and to take part in economic dialogues.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 19
Photo credit: www.clivebates.com


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