Friday 13 January 2012

Brussels v Brussels: Belgium and the EU clash over the budget

The Commission’s scrutiny of Belgium’s draft budget has caused a political backlash from PS (PES) government minister Paul Magnette:

““Wie kent Olli Rehn? Wie heeft ooit het gezicht van Olli Rehn gezien? Wie weet waar hij vandaan komt en wat hij heeft gedaan? Niemand. Terwijl hij zegt hoe wij onze economische politiek moeten voeren.”

[“Who knows who Olli Rehn [Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs] is? Who has seen Olli Rehn’s face? Who knows where he comes from and what he’s done? Nobody. Yet he tells us how we should conduct our economic policy.”]”

This was sparked by the Commission’s intervention through its budgetary surveillance role:

“The commission caused a flurry in Belgian political circles over the weekend by warning that the country needed to curb this year's spending. Rehn suggested the government's calculations that the budget deficit for 2012 would be 2.8 percent were too optimistic and asked for a cut of between €1.2 billion and €2 billion.

Belgium eventually settled on freezing €1.3 billion in spending, a move that saw it escape the threat of monetary sanctions on Wednesday (11 January) when the commission assessed the matter.”

Although the Commission has given Belgium a clean bill of health for its budget, how far the Commission should influence how Member States stick within the rules remains an issue. It’s up to Member States to meet their budget targets, but they’re free to do so however they want – it looks like the actual issue here was the credibility of the forecasts that the Belgian government built its budget on. Clearly the forecasts will have to be credible (if Member States could pluck numbers out of thin air or pick and force the Commission to accept them, then the rules would lose much of their force), but the political argument is over the democratic legitimacy of the Commission to involve itself in the sensitive area of national budgets. The Commission has rebutted the argument that it doesn’t have the democratic legitimacy to oversee the budgets:

“"De regels zijn regels die zijn goedgekeurd door het Europees parlement en door alle lidstaten", reageerde woordvoerder Amadeu Altafaj. "De 3 procent (de grens voor begrotingstekorten, nvdr) is dus geen dictaat van de Europese Commissie."

[“The rules are rules passed by the European Parliament and by Member States,” said spokesman Amadeu Altafaj. “The 3 procent (the limit for the budget deficit, nvdr) is therefore not a diktat from the European Commission.”]”

From the Commission’s point of view (and that of its supporters), it is applying the technical criteria set by the Parliament and Council (see three of the “six pact” acts for enforcement here, here and here [all PDFs]). But Magnette’s frustration goes further – he says the EU’s policies will cause a 15 year long recession, and that the Commission is a bastion of the “right and ultra liberal”. The Commission is dominated by the EPP, and it is a very political institution. But what’s happened with the “six pack” legislation on budgetary monitoring is that the political and economic assumptions behind the EU’s current direction have been enshrined in the technical rules governing the economic union. The Commission can say that it’s just applying the rules passed by the Member States and the democratically elected Parliament because, well, that’s what’s happening. However the Commission proposed these laws and it was politically active in shaping them and guiding them through the Union legislature – if Magnette (or indeed any government ministers or parliamentarians) want to push for different rules or attack the Commission for its political direction, it’s better done during the passage of legislation or when building a coalition for new legislation.

Like the new fiscal compact, there’s a problem for the left here. For there to be the necessary trust to build an economic union with more solidarity, there needs to be a certain level of discipline: it cannot be a one-sided bargain between those (currently) with deficit problems and the (current) core creditors. Magnette is right that the Commission is highly political (though we should distinguish between its political and technical functions), but those opposed to its political direction need to be equally political back. There needs to be support for Commission proposals for them to pass and the left will need a clearer strategy and narrative if it’s to build a coherent and effective opposition. Somehow I don’t expect it to be built around Di Rupo’s socialist-led government...

And Di Rupo? He distanced himself from Magnette’s remarks, citing Belgium’s pro-European traditions.


  1. I think that Magnette is right on the economic orientation of the Commission, but he is wrong on the political ground. The EU needs rules, and Belgium should suggest new rules if it is not satisfied with the existing ones. The interesting question is now whether the same rules will be applied to Germany? I doubt... read more on

  2. During one of Margaret Thatcher's final speeches as British PM railing against the ECB, veteran socialist MP Dennis Skinner shouted out; 'she's going to the governer.'
    How right he was, Merkel's Euro-monetarism is a return to the deflationary disasters of the pre-war gold standard.

  3. There needs to be a proper, constructive opposition to the current policies in the EU which propose alternatives and can build coalitions in favour of them. I hope that we'll see more debate and alternatives, but political parties seem to focus too much on winning governments (in European politics) rather than trying to win around the European public inbetween elections...