Open Europe Blog

A key question for the future institutional arrangement of the Eurozone is whether further integration will happen at the level of all 27 member states, within the framework of the EU treaties, or whether the Eurozone will simply press ahead with an ‘inter-governmental’ deal, circumventing the acquis communautaire and non-eurozone members.

This is critical for the UK as under the latter option, Britain will have little to no leverage over future Eurozone integration, whereas under the former it’ll have a solid veto, which it can use to extract all kinds of concessions in pursuit of its national interest. Following Cameron’s veto to an EU-27 treaty change last December – which resulted in the intergovernmental fiscal treaty – a host of eurosceptics and status-quo defenders alike now tend to argue that the precedence has been set; Eurozone members can do whatever they want inter-governmentally, they say, and use the EU institutions at that. Britain has been reduced to the role of a spectator. The plot has been lost and the goose has been cooked.

From there, some eurosceptics reach the conclusion that Britain should withdraw altogether, whereas the status quo defenders say Britain should hop on the train towards more integration (at which point they cease to be status quo defenders and turn into brave souls advocating that Britain signs up to a euro superstate).

So has the goose been cooked?

Well, this week’s Spiegel magazine splashed with the news that the German governmet is pushing for a new EU treaty that will consolidate and expand Eurozone budget oversight powers – referred to in Germany under the euphemism of ‘political union’ – under a firm legal framework. Chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly pushing for a convention – comprising representatives from national governments and parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission – to be formed by the end of the year, with a first meeting to be agreed at an EU summit in December. If the article is accurate, a ‘convention’ would be about a ‘full’ Treaty change, not the limited one agreed in December 2010.

One of the main changes sought is the provision for the ECJ to rule if national budgets comply with the EU’s fiscal rules, with the option of credible sanctions for non-compliance, something Merkel failed to secure in the inter-governmental fiscal treaty last year – courtesy of French nervousness over loss of souveraineté.

It’s difficult to gauge how credible the story is – speaking on ARD Merkel said that “I am not calling for a convention… that’s not the point”. Though politicians’ denials count for zero these days, it’s probably right that December is not realistic as a start date for a new EU treaty. Apart from everything else that needs to be sorted first, EU leaders still remember how long it took to push through the European constitution/Lisbon treaty – which Europe’s citizens didn’t like that much (as for being a ‘crisis’ this was of course a mere prelude to what has come to pass since). And unlike the Lisbon treaty, codified central fiscal controls would be about decisions over taxation and spending – the bread and butter of national politics. Also, non-euro member states – such as Poland – oppose a new treaty at this time on the basis that it would widen the euro/non-euro divide with a negative impact on the single market.

But while it is clear that there is no great enthusiasm for it, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that at some point in the near future, the eurozone will need a new set of rules if it is to stay together in the longer term. As good as the EU is at fudging it, ploughing on incrementally with economic and fiscal integration is politically unsustainable. So the question for Britain’s leverage in Europe really becomes, how bad does the Germans want to anchor Ordnungspolitik in EU law. Well, as we argued in the Telegraph back in February:

 “The Germans in particular – ever conscious of their Constitutional Court– know that the current arrangement involving an ad hoc euro treaty is legally dubious. As long as the Germans feel uncomfortable, Cameron maintains his leverage.” 

This is key. For a range of reasons (see here, here and here), the Germans don’t have that much confidence in Eurozone inter-governmental arrangements, as it leaves them more at the mercy of the ‘Club Med’ and creates a grey zone between EU law and the German ‘basic law’ which is just too awkward to bear for many Germans. Sooner or later, there will be an attempt at EU treaty changes.

Does the UK know what it wants?

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