Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

German Constitutional Court Lisbon Treaty ruling

Another small hurdle for the much-beleaguered treaty to overcome:

the Act Extending and Strengthening the Rights of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat in European Union Matters (Gesetz über die Ausweitung und Stärkung der Rechte des Bundestages und des Bundesrates in Angelegenheiten der Europäischen Union) infringes Article 38.1 in conjunction with Article 23.1 of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz – GG) insofar as the Bundestag and the Bundesrat have not been accorded sufficient rights of participation in European lawmaking procedures and treaty amendment procedures. The Federal Republic of Germany’s instrument of ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon may not be deposited as long as the constitutionally required legal elaboration of the parliamentary rights of participation has not entered into force.

And so the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is to be yet further delayed while Germany rejigs a few bits and pieces of its own constitution to accommodate it. Which, depending on how long Germany takes to sort this out, could mean that the treaty is delayed long enough for there to be a Conservative government in the UK before Lisbon has been fully ratified, which would mean a UK referendum, which would mean Lisbon’s rejection by Britain and yet another crisis for the EU. Fun fun fun.

There’s lots more in this genuinely fascinating ruling that is pretty much guaranteed to be seized upon by those of an anti-EU persuasion – even though the real issue here is as much Germany’s strict constitution as any problems with the expansion of EU powers. The ruling also helps clarify a number of issues, as well as point to more issues of the EU’s structure and identity that really need to be clarified by the EU itself.

First up, the EU’s crisis of identity and purpose – as I’ve noted many times, the EU itself doesn’t know what it is for, so little wonder it’s got a rather confused structure:

The structural problem of the European Union is at the centre of the review of constitutionality. The extent of the Union’s freedom of action has steadily and considerably increased, not least by the Treaty of Lisbon, so that meanwhile in some fields of policy, the European Union has a shape that corresponds to that of a federal state, i.e. is analogous to that of a state. In contrast, the internal decision-making and appointment procedures remain predominantly committed to the pattern of an international organisation, i.e. are analogous to international law; as before, the structure of the European Union essentially follows the principle of the equality of states.

Note, dear eurosceptic friends, that “analogous to a state” does not mean “is a state” – and note also that “a shape that corresponds to that of a federal state” does also not mean “is a state” (and also that federal states can take many forms – their defining characteristic being the importance placed on devolved, state/regional levels of governance over that of a central authority).

Indeed, this ruling seems to utterly preclude the creation of a European superstate – at least, not without a fundamental change to the German constitution, ratified by referendum (that’s how I read this, anyway):

As long as, consequently, no uniform European people, as the subject of legitimisation, can express its majority will in a politically effective manner that takes due account of equality in the context of the foundation of a European federal state, the peoples of the European Union, which are constituted in their Member States, remain the decisive holders of public authority, including Union authority. In Germany, accession to a European federal state would require the creation of a new constitution, which would go along with the declared waiver of the sovereign statehood safeguarded by the Basic Law.

…The peoples of the Member States are the holders of the constituent power. The Basic Law does not permit the special bodies of the legislative, executive and judicial power to dispose of the essential elements of the constitution.

…The authorisation to transfer sovereign powers to the European Union pursuant to Article 23.1 GG is, however, granted under the condition that the sovereign statehood of a constitutional state is maintained on the basis of a responsible integration programme according to the principle of conferral and respecting the Member States’ constitutional identity, and that at the same time the Federal Republic of Germany does not lose its ability to politically and socially shape the living conditions on its own responsibility.

That, to me, pretty much categorically rules out any EU superstate – while allowing for further integration, up to an indeterminate level (yet to be defined, but before the stage at which Germany’s ability to “politically and socially shape the living conditions” of its people is lost) at which a popular vote and alteration of the German Constitution would become necessary. Later, the EU’s current nature is more clearly defined:

With the present status of integration, the European Union does, even upon the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, not yet attain a shape that corresponds to the level of legitimisation of a democracy constituted as a state. It is not a federal state but remains an association of sovereign states to which the principle of conferral applies…

With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Federal Republic of Germany will remain a sovereign state. In particular, the substance of German state authority is protected.

There we have it – fairly categorical, that. And if anti-EU types are happy to use German politicians to claim that 84% of laws stem from the EU, I think it’s only fair for those of us of a less vehemently anti-EU persuasion be allowed to quote these German judges repeatedly when countering claims that the EU is becoming a superstate.

Moving on, the European Parliament also comes in for some stick, largely for still being ineffective, under-developed, and uninfluential – though this is seen as a good thing, as too powerful a European Parliament, runs the logic, could claim greater democratic legitimacy within the EU decision-making process than the governments of the member states working together behind the scenes via the Council and Commission, and thus reduce their freedom of action (the EU’s “democratic deficit”, in other words, is actually preserving the sovereignty of the member states…):

Neither as regards its composition nor its position in the European competence structure is the European Parliament sufficiently prepared to take representative and assignable majority decisions as uniform decisions on political direction. Measured against requirements placed on democracy in states, its election does not take due account of equality, and it is not competent to take authoritative decisions on political direction in the context of the supranational balancing of interest between the states. It therefore cannot support a parliamentary government and organise itself with regard to party politics in the system of government and opposition in such a way that a decision on political direction taken by the European electorate could have a politically decisive effect. Due to this structural democratic deficit, which cannot be resolved in a Staatenverbund, further steps of integration that go beyond the status quo may undermine neither the States’ political power of action nor the principle of conferral.

And, just to underline yet further how an EU superstate is not on the cards:

The European Union must comply with democratic principles as regards its nature and extent and also as regards its own organisational and procedural elaboration (Article 23.1, Article 20.1 and 20.2 in conjunction with Article 79.3 of the Basic Law). This means firstly that European integration may not result in the system of democratic rule in Germany being undermined. This does not mean that a number of sovereign powers which can be determined from the outset or specific types of sovereign powers must remain in the hands of the state. European unification on the basis of a union of sovereign states under the Treaties may, however, not be realised in such a way that the Member States do not retain sufficient room for the political formation of the economic, cultural and social circumstances of life. This applies in particular to areas which shape the citizens’ circumstances of life, in particular the private space of their own responsibility and of political and social security, which is protected by the fundamental rights, and to political decisions that particularly depend on previous understanding as regards culture, history and language and which unfold in discourses in the space of a political public that is organised by party politics and Parliament. To the extent
that in these areas, which are of particular importance for democracy, a transfer of sovereign powers is permitted at all, a narrow interpretation is required. This concerns in particular the administration of criminal law, the civil and the military monopoly on the use of force, fundamental fiscal decisions on revenue and expenditure, the shaping of the circumstances of life by social policy and important decisions on cultural issues such as the school and education system, the provisions governing the media, and dealing with religious communities.

Oh, and we’ve also got a categorical rejection of that myth that the Lisbon Treaty has the potential to become a self-amending enabling act – for this would be against German constitutional law:

The Basic Law does not grant the German state bodies powers to transfer sovereign powers in such a way that their exercise can independently establish other competences for the European Union. It prohibits the transfer of competence to decide on its own competence (Kompetenz-Kompetenz). The act approving a treaty amending a European Treaty and the national accompanying laws must therefore be such that European integration continues to take place according to the principle of conferral without the possibility for the European Union of taking possession of Kompetenz-Kompetenz or to violate the Member States’ constitutional identity.

There’s lots more of interest there – though precise interpretations of the significance of many of the details are a tad tricky for me to provide with my, *ahem*, less than perfect knowledge of German constitutional law. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of EU geek heaven – and, I’m sure you’ll agree, a lot of those definitions of what the EU’s competences are and should be (as well as the implicit restrictions made on certain aspects of future European integration) are likely to prove invaluable in the years to come as the EU continues to try and work out its purpose and direction.

Because, lest we forget, Lisbon actually is really little more than the tidying-up exercise that it has been claimed as. Yes, it introduces a few new aspects that some may see as worrying – but it still hasn’t solved the fundamental problems of EU governance and the relationships between the member states that have arisen since the expansion to 25 (now 27 – and soon likely to be 29). Almost as soon as Lisbon is ratified, work will have to begin on its successor – and these rulings by the German Constituional Court will, with any luck, provide useful guidelines for the next batch of EU reformers.