A few days ago, the designated European Commission finally showed its true colours: It wants to make sure that its economic policy recommendations become enforceable. Deregulation of rent setting systems, adjusting the retirement age to account for life expectancy and increased flexibility in wage-setting mechanisms were mere recommendations in 2014. That is supposed to change now. Its instruments are the competitiveness pacts 2.0 and a separate budget for the Euro area, even though there is no legal basis for such a measure. A decision is going to be made at upcoming meetings of the European.
Convergence and Competitiveness Instrument; Competitiveness Pacts; Partnerships for Growth, Jobs and Competitiveness – as numerous as their names are the attempts of the European Council to create consensus about binding contracts for neoliberal structural reforms.
Angela Merkel – the organic intellectual of a “reform alliance” consisting of trade associations, the financial industry, national ministries of finance and the economy, the EU Commission, neoliberal heads of state and government and the ECB – has been pursuing such plans since the beginning of 2013.
But is this about the countries who face financing difficulties on the financial markets or about the economies that show excessive trade deficits? No. For those countries, instruments were already put in place in the wake of the economic crisis that obligated them to accept the standards of the neoliberal reform alliance as economic policy.
The Neoliberal Reform Alliance Is Targeting The Remaining Countries
Now, the competitive pacts aim to include the remaining countries, such as France, Germany and Italy. For all Euro states, a mechanism shall be created that will, in the words of the Commission, overcome “political […] deterrents to reform”: In binding contracts, the countries shall commit to “structural reforms of the labour market, the social security and health care systems and of retirement regulations”. Countries with timely adoption shall receive “financial” incentives.
No mention shall be made of the abuse that corporations inflict on social systems through tax evasion, which deprives public coffers of one billion euros yearly, according to estimates by the Commission itself. No mention of the ever quicker redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. And no mention of the erosion of democracy, in both economy and society, that is driven by financial markets. Rather, the competitiveness pacts strengthen those actors who have spent years calling for “painful but necessary” reforms of the social infrastructure. In times of tight budgets, who can afford to leave money in Brussels?
But for now, voting in the European Council has not been unanimous, as would be required for the competitiveness pacts. Resistance by the unions and by transnational alliances such as “Another Europe is possible,” among others, was too strong and the outgoing Commission too weak.
Old Ideas, New Candour: Enforceability For The Commission’s Recommendations
That is supposed to change now. Just a few days ago, the Handelsblatt reported that EU commissioners Moscovici and Dombrovskis, who have been suggested as heads of the relevant departments, want to “ensure that governments follow the EU’s economic recommendations, which have so far been accorded little attention”. Even though this was “one of Merkel’s ideas which had been regarded as rejected,” parts of the proposal are new:
1) Up to now, the Commission has shied away from stating explicitly that its country-specific recommendations should be the object of the pacts.
2) In order to provide the financial incentives for fulfilment of the competitiveness pacts, a separate budget for the Euro zone shall be established in the medium term.
But what, exactly, is the content of the country-specific recommendations? Since the competitiveness pacts, according to all proposals to date, must be concluded between “the member states of the euro zone and the Commission,” it is worthwhile to take a look at the recommendations that the Commission issued in 2014, before they were toned down by the Council:
Belgium, for example, should aim for a “reform of the wage-setting system, including wage indexation [and] to provide for effective automatic corrections when needed”. Bulgaria is advised to lower its minimum wage. France should commit itself to the German model: The unemployment benefit system shall be “reformed” in such a way that “incentives to return to work” are strengthened. Germany, in turn, shall lead the way once more and “[increase] incentives for later retirement”. Slovenia and Croatia are called upon to privatize and Sweden is even asked to deregulate its rent setting system in order to ensure “more market-oriented rent levels”. For Austria, the Commission envisions linking the statutory retirement age to life expectancy and harmonizing the statutory retirement age for women and men sooner.
But are the competitiveness pacts really about a contest between the EU and the nation state? No. Rather, nation state actors belonging to the neoliberal reform alliance are trying to use the European level to further their interests — to push through demands that are, to date, not enforceable within the democracies of the nation states due to a power balance that does not favour these interests that strongly.
Overcoming Democratic Obstacles
The manner in which the competitiveness pacts are to be established makes it obvious that the main conflict is not between “the EU” and, say, “France,” but rather between the executive (both on the European and the national level) and representative democracy. Jean Claude Juncker, the new president of the Commission, lets us know on that point: “I want to launch legislative and non-legislative initiatives to deepen our Economic and Monetary Union during the first year of my mandate. These would include […] proposals to encourage further structural reforms, if necessary through additional financial incentives and a targeted fiscal capacity at Euro zone level […].”
The wording suggests that the competitiveness pacts are to be implemented through a regulation. However, the European Treaties clearly do not grant the Commission authority to establish competitiveness pacts or to pay out the financial incentives associated with them. It seems that also the new president of the Commission has chosen the path of authoritarian constitutionalism which will weaken both national parliaments and the European parliament by circumventing regular treaty amendment procedures.
Yet, you cannot accuse the Commission of being dishonest. For two years now, it has clearly articulated what this is all about: overcoming political obstacles. It remains to be seen, however, if the heads of states will join in this new instance of bypassing the parliaments where the wage-earning population is able to advance their interests with comparative ease. A landmark decision will probably be made at one of the next two upcoming European Councils (October 23 or December 18, 2014).