Isolated in Brussels: Merkel Clashes with EU Commission
Even as the euro crisis grows less acute, Europe is stuck. The European Commission is resisting any loss of its power, and many member states are tired of German dominance. Opponents of Europe, including those in Merkel's camp, sense an opportunity.
On page 157 of the coalition agreement between Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), at the beginning of the section on Europe, there is an oldie that many German governments have crooned in the past. It has to do with the German language -- that is, its use in the European institutions. "German must be put on equal terms, in practice, with the other two procedural languages, English and French," the document reads.
There is no evidence that the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, has ever paid more than lip service to the decades-old language dispute. She couldn't care less whether negotiations and meetings are conducted in English or French. To Merkel, it's more important that her Europe of the future becomes significantly more German. She wants Europe to become a different place, and certainly not the Europe Helmut Kohl envisioned. Merkel's Europe is no longer dominated by the European Commission, but instead is a place where the nation states become increasingly important. This would signify a departure from the history of European development over the course of more than six decades, as well as being a part of Germany's national interest.
That would spell the end for the so-called "Monnet Method," named after the Frenchman Jean Monnet, a bold postwar visionary who, above all, was a gifted tactician. His name stands for the leitmotif of European unification, which he devised: That powers are "communitized" whenever politically feasible, and wherever it is objectively appropriate. This meant that the European Commission in Brussels, the "custodian of the treaties," would gradually become more powerful.
In practice, since the 1950s this has meant: first coal and steel, then agriculture, the large internal market for goods and services, the euro, powers in domestic and judicial policy, social issues, foreign affairs and preferably a common military. Following every amendment to a treaty, and following almost every landmark decision by the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, the European Commission and the European Parliament ended up with more powers than before, while the member states' powers declined.
Resistance to Merkel Grows
Anyone who wishes to depart from this principle is likely to encounter resistance, which means that Merkel needs allies. But the record doesn't look good for the German chancellor at the moment, as she faces growing resistance and is losing allies.
The Germans haven't been on such bad terms with the European Commission in a long time. Brussels is using what is probably its strongest weapon, competition law, to threaten Merkel's most important domestic project at the moment, the federal government's shift away from nuclear power and toward green energy, also known as the Energiewende. Conversely, Merkel is hardly making a secret of her view that the European Commission should not be closely involved with the next major steps toward a closer economic and monetary union. In her view, the member states should remain in control when it comes to the further restructuring of Europe -- a challenge to the power-conscious eurocrats and their communitized powers. Commission President Olli Rehn has commented critically, that the community method is needed to fully integrate the small member states into decisions.
Berlin has no trouble accepting this conflict as a fact of life, and the chancellor and her advisers are willing to take their chances. But the Germans are now largely on their own among member states. Both small and large EU countries blocked Merkel's latest push for a reform-oriented, common economic and fiscal policy, using Germany as a model. At the EU summit in the second half of December, Merkel was confronted with harsh words from several European leaders, and the mood at the table turned against her. After the meeting, German EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger had this warning for the Chancellery: "Although Germany is the largest member state, it's still only one of 28. Following the Lisbon Treaty, majority decisions in the EU have increased. This is why Berlin must show a willingness to compromise, just like everyone else."
Brussels is at an impasse. For the moment, the chancellor has become bogged down in her attempt to lead the EU.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso was one of the first targets of her anger. At the EU summit, Merkel took the Portuguese politician aside and flatly told him that the proceedings by the Commission against Germany's renewable law -- the German Energies Act (EEG) -- on the grounds it breaches EU competition regulations was an "affront." She told Barroso that Berlin was certainly willing to discuss the exceptions for energy-intensive businesses, which had been significantly expanded recently. But a general attack on the centerpiece of the German Energiewende policy was presumptuous, Merkel said. Since 2002, the European Commission had never raised any fundamental objections to renewable energy, she added, so why now?
Commission Pushes Forward
But the Commission plans to stick to its guns, and the proceeding is continuing as planned. And the EU's executive has even more up its sleeve that will further fuel the conflict. For instance, in Germany energy-intensive companies are not only largely exempt from the EEG reallocation charge, but also from fees for the use of power lines. A decision as to whether this is compatible with competition law will likely be made in the first half of 2014. For some time, Brussels has also been looking into government subsidies for many German regional airports, from Frankfurt-Hahn to Zweibrücken and Kassel-Calden. Brussels also holds a critical view of Deutsche Bahn's monopoly in the rail network, while the European Commission finds fault with the prices that private railroad operators must pay to use the routes.
And the scrutiny of large German export surpluses has only just begun. And although the Chancellery concedes that this scrutiny is formally justified, Berlin is furious nonetheless. It argues that the Commission has granted France and other countries longer grace periods than originally planned to bring their budget deficits below the admissible limit.
Some partners feel a certain sense of schadenfreude to see the Germans coming under fire, as became apparent during a recent dinner hosted by the Italian ambassador to the EU. For almost two hours, the discussion also revolved around German trade surpluses. To the great amusement of everyone present, one of the guests suggested that the surpluses could be offset by German penalty payments for the EEG.
The German representatives in Brussels are doing their utmost to defend themselves in the proceeding, but Commission President Barroso has nothing left to lose, with his term ending in the summer of 2014. And his relationship with Merkel is unlikely to improve anymore at this point, despite the critical role she played in providing him with two terms at the head of the Brussels Commission. It isn't something she wants to be reminded of today.
For officials in Berlin, the example of "olive oil jugs" is a case in point. In May, a spokesman for the European Commission announced that the small, open containers on millions of restaurant tables in Europe were to be completely banned. In the future, olive oil was to be served in a "special closed container that cannot be refilled." The Brussels agency argued that its aim is to improve hygiene and consumer protection, and that the new rule would prevent customers from being served bad olive oil. But the presumably well-intentioned provision was not well received. Alarmed by the public outcry, the Commission backtracked, and there was suddenly talk of a solo effort by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos.
- Part 1: Merkel Clashes with EU Commission
- Part 2: An Unruly Commission
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