Open Europe Blog

Hanging up their robes? Ball is now in ECJ’s court

As has been widely reported this morning there has been some surprising news out of Karlsruhe with regards to the ECB’s bond  buying programme and its legality.

Our full take is here, with the summary below:

Summary: The German Constitutional Court (GCC) – Bundesverfassungsgericht – has referred several questions surrounding the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It is evident that the Court believes the OMT is illegal and incompatible with EU and, therefore, German law. However, the Court only has jurisdiction to rule on matters of German domestic law. It therefore argues that it must refer the key questions to the ECJ – the body which interprets EU law – given that the ECB’s mandate and any overstepping of EU treaties is obviously a question about EU law.

The ECJ is likely to side with the EU institutions and rule that the OMT is compatible with EU law, with the GCC likely to therefore say its hands are tied. Still, the decision throws new uncertainty into the fragile eurozone economy and could hamper the recovery. The GCC may also, in its interpretation of the OMT’s compatibility with German law, insist in new red lines – potentially limiting the level of purchases. This itself would severely restrict the role of the ECB. 

Markets, while briefly spooked, seem to have broadly recovered, whilee the euro remains slightly weaker. This doesn’t seem to have had much impact, with many coming round to the view that the OMT will remain practically usable until the ECJ almost inevitably fully approves it.

The broader fallout is interesting, as this case has often been cited as one of the remaining risks in the eurozone. Despite the GCC’s strong objections to the OMT, this could end up actually bolstering the ECB’s position.

More generally as well, it does raise questions about Germany’s role in monetary policy and the GCC’s role. On EU related issues it is ultimately bound by the ECJ’s interpretation of EU law. Furthermore, we can’t help but feel that the Court has tried to somewhat dodge this very difficult and politically sensitive decision. It also suggests Germany may be struggling to fulling impose its will over monetary policy – although it clearly remains very powerful and many would argue continues to hold action such as asset purchases at bay.

Nonetheless, plenty of food for thought and an interesting shift in the dynamic of the eurozone.

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