The World from Berlin 'We Can't Sacrifice Democracy to Save the Euro'

On Tuesday, Germany's highest court delivered a possible setback to Chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts to rescue the euro by ruling that a secret committee meant to fast-track approval for bailouts was largely unconstitutional. German commentators mainly supported the court's ruling, arguing that democracy shouldn't be sacrificed in the fight to save the euro.

Andreas Vosskuhle, president of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court.

Andreas Vosskuhle, president of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court.

A ruling by the country's highest court has given the German parliament more authority in handling the euro crisis -- but the decision is potentially a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel's ability to tackle the continent's debt problems.

On Tuesday, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a secret nine-member committee meant to fast-track approval for euro zone bailout funds was, "in large part," unconstitutional. The special committee was formed last year to allow for a quick approval of aid in urgent situations when a vote by the full 620-seat parliament, the Bundestag, would be too cumbersome.

But the panel was suspended by the high court in October, following a complaint by two members of the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who argued that parliament's powers were being weakened. The court was concerned that the parliament's right to maintain oversight of the country's budget was being sidestepped, since large disbursements of money have been necessary for the bailout of stricken euro-zone countries.

Under the ruling, the committee could still approve the purchase of debt on the secondary market by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), but may not extend loans or preventative credit lines to other troubled states, or approve the recapitalization of banks.

It wasn't the court's first ruling to buttress the power of the German Bundestag. In September, the court upheld the constitutionality of the euro bailout program, but maintained that the parliament must have a more significant role. That ruling held that the euro aid packages must be clearly defined, and that members of parliament must be given the opportunity to review the aid and halt it if necessary.

The ruling came one day after the Bundestag approved a second Greek bailout package. Merkel, however, fell short of the symbolic absolute majority known as a "chancellor's majority." Seventeen members of Merkel's governing coalition opposed the measure, up from the 13 who voted no on the euro-zone rescue fund in September.

Also on Tuesday, the Irish government announced it would hold a referendum on the European fiscal pact -- a decision that is also seen as a setback for Merkel, the main architect of the pact.

On Wednesday, the issue dominated the major German editorial pages, with most of the voices offering their support for the ruling, and calling for more power for the Bundestag.

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The Federal Constitutional Court has reached an important and correct decision. The judges strengthened the rights of the Bundestag and opposed the notion that a small secret committee of parliament, and not the entire parliamentary body, could make decisions on costly expenditures in connection with the euro rescue fund. The court only allowed for one exception: the purchase of foreign sovereign bonds."

"It is not the first time that the court has reminded the Bundestag during the crisis of its rights and responsibilities. Therefore, a majority of German members of parliament must ask themselves whether, in the past few years, they have been lacking a sense of parliamentary pride and assertiveness."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Democracy is not a 'speedocracy,' therefore the ruling is a judgment against the breathlessness, the hastiness and the alleged lack of alternatives as regards the euro rescue measures. The ruling is a warning against the erroneous belief that more democracy hurts Europe. The judgment is a reminder to keep decisions about Europe and the euro on an open stage, and not on some secret committee. The court wants to prevent the parliament from being sacrificed to the hectic pace of the euro bailout."

"That is right, and important. One cannot want to save the euro and at the same time let democracy deteriorate. That is the main message from Karlsruhe, and this message is one of a host of those in Karlsruhe rulings, in which the judges have tried to strengthen the parliament's position in relation to the executive. The judges have, hopefully successfully, tried to prevent the failure of the parliament as an independent body."

The center-right Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung writes:

"No, the people are not being asked their opinions during this European crisis. How could that happen, in light of the speed with which bailout packages are being put together and firewalls built? But even at times like these, when what is at stake is nothing less than 'a question of war and peace,' to quote former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the parliament's role should not be forgotten."

"The right of each member of parliament to inform himself or herself about the issue has been neglected. Decisions on a multi-billion euro bailout are not top secret matters."

"Will -- or can -- the members of parliament fulfill this responsibility? At the very least, their self-image has changed in the past several years. They have grown into their envisioned role, and have been placed center stage by the Constitutional Court, which has also strengthened its own role as a significant player in European affairs. The judges, who themselves were selected by a small, parliamentary committee meeting behind closed doors in what can hardly be described as a transparent process, have erected protective shields and firewalls to defend the parliament, the seat of democracy. ... If this is really a matter of war and peace, then at least the parliamentarians are well armed."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"This ruling will make it much more difficult for Merkel to govern during the European debt crisis. (...) The prospect of having the entire parliament, instead of a small committee, voting on every future decision involving the euro rescue must be a nightmarish one for Merkel. The euroskeptics and opponents of bailout measures -- including those in the governing coalition -- will see the ruling as a validation of their feelings that the government had wanted to ignore them on some significant decisions."

"A further, third rescue package for the Greeks, which is currently the subject of heavy speculation, could become an opportunity for the rebels within the coalition and a risk for the chancellor."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The ruling has few consequences for the future of the euro. Because, unlike last fall, the financial markets have calmed down after the European Central Bank took on its role as a savior. Shortly before Christmas, the ECB, because no one else wanted or was able to act, lent the banks €500 billion at low interest rates. Since then, no one has been interested in the EFSF's instruments that were temporarily blocked by the constitutional court. And no one expects any more that the rescue fund will directly intervene in the markets again."

"With their demands for a greater say, the Bundestag has actually achieved the opposite. Now the members of parliament have to look on as the ECB, in trying to avert the crisis, is doing what the Germans have always wanted to avoid: printing money."

-- Mary Beth Warner

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