Distant declarations: don’t duck their import

C-19 has narrowed my focus, to my own front-door in effect, writes Sillerton Hill, our columnist. When news of the ‘mystery threat from China’ first emerged, my reaction was it was ‘distant’, it would be ‘defused’; it served emotionally at the time to be in ‘denial’.

C-19 has now changed almost every landscape you can imagine. Europe has been visibly shaken to its core, as we have been, here in Scotland and in our own four-nation union. If there is to be an aftermath, it could be well into the future. Now, it seems that we must live with the ‘hit’, do whatever it takes to manage a recovery, and expect unexpected consequences.

One such consequence exploded last week in the German city of Frankfurt, at the doors of the European Central Bank (ECB), and simultaneously in Luxembourg outside the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The German Constitutional Court fired the salvo from where it sits in Karlsruhe and aimed it squarely at the heart of the European Union body politic. The message was that the ECB had exceeded its legal remit in aggressively expanding a multi-trillion euro mass bond purchase programme to support Europe’s economy at this critical time. It goes without saying that if Europe’s economy ever needed big help, once again, then it’s now.

The sub-texts are that the ECB has moved from focused monetary policy support to broad economic policy-making; it has moved beyond its mandate; the ECJ is in error in sanctioning this fundamental shift; and Germany is not necessarily going to be bounced into sharing the tab on another chapter of ‘do whatever it takes’ bail-out economics to avert a new eurozone crisis.

So, the German Constitutional Court takes a tilt at the ECJ. It’s a ‘distant’ issue. It’ll be ‘defused’. We’ve got enough on our plates already; put it to one side in ‘denial’. 

But the jack is out of the box. The German court has been itching for many years, certainly back to 2012 and the last eurozone crisis, to challenge just where ECJ authority stops. Because it there is no stop, then Germany and the richer eurozone states are bound to share in the deeply over-burdening debts of some not-so-rich members. Debt-sharing, of course, is not what the stylised ‘canny housewives’ of Germany and The Netherlands signed up for, nor have they been asked to approve it. Beyond that, the German challenge feeds more recent narratives emerging in Poland and Hungary (on different issues) that “the ECJ does not have unlimited powers”.

But, hear European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen: “The final word on EU law is always spoken in Luxembourg. Nowhere else.” (And she’s not alone in that view: see here and here).

The German court judgement has been heralded as “extraordinary”. That might just underplay it. Either way, the challenge is out in the open and it strikes at the heart of the EU. 

What does it all have to do with me, then? As is the case here, there is now a fresh element of constitutional strain in Europe. (Pictures of armed protesters outside federal courthouses in some US states suggest tensions there too). There will be consequences for the shape of the EU which we are so keen to re-enter. In effect, the principle of how far EU law outranks the national laws of member states falls to be deeply reconsidered. It may be a distant issue; it may be defused; but I have a feeling it would be deeply misplaced to dream on in denial of it.

As if that weren’t enough, the EU is visibly being drawn further into a soft-power whirlpool along its south-eastern boundaries, with Russia and China in the mix. The latest upshot is the post-summit 6 May exhortation from Ursula von der Leyen that “the Western Balkans belong in the EU.”

Ah, the Balkans! At what price?

Image of ECJ in Luxembourg by Cédric Puisney via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0