ECB bond-buying: Brussels versus Berlin

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is considering launching infringement proceedings against Germany. On May 5 the country's Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the ECB's bond-buying programme partially contravened German law because it did not respect the principle of proportionality. Von der Leyen argues that the EU, rather than national authorities, is responsible for monetary policy. Is a lawsuit a good idea?

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Financial Times (GB) /

No EU without Germany

It would be foolish for the EU Commission to follow through with its threat, columnist Gideon Rachman warns in the Financial Times:

“Germany is the biggest country in the EU and the largest contributor to its budget. The EU cannot be built in opposition to its member states - least of all Germany. The club can survive Brexit. But without Germany, there would be no EU. Opinion polls in Germany suggest that the constitutional court is the most respected institution in the country. The Bundesbank is also traditionally regarded as a key guardian of Germany's postwar democracy. ... For the EU to humble two of the most important pillars of Germany's postwar stability would invite a public backlash.”

Le Monde (FR) /

Court wants to strengthen Community law

Enhanced control of ECB programmes will strengthen the European legal system, argues Berlin-based European lawyer Matthias Ruffert in Le Monde:

“Why didn't the ECB end its buying policy once the EU escaped deflation - which has happened at least once in the past four years? Must we stress that Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union expressly prohibits the ECB from directly funding member states? ... In such a context, the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court to request the ECB to base its decisions on a more thorough assessment of proportionality would allow the ECB's mandate to be carried out more effectively. So this decision should be seen as a call to strengthen Community law.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

Ball now in ECB's court

The ECB has sufficient leeway to prevent a crisis in the EU, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung believes:

“For everything to comply with European law from Karlsruhe's perspective, all the ECB Council would have to do is show in a comprehensible way that the monetary policy goals targeted with the PSPP bond purchasing programme are not disproportionate to the associated economic impact. That shouldn't be too much to ask. And the ECB wouldn't have to jump through too many hoops to fulfil this demand made by the Constitutional Court of an important member country, which after all isn't completely unreasonable. … In any case, efforts to find a common European course should not lead to infringement proceedings.”

El País (ES) /

Germany's stance rousing unpleasant memories

In effectively putting itself above the European judiciary Germany's Federal Constitutional Court is sending a negative signal, warns Lluís Bassets in El País:

“The dispute signals an erroneous, anti-European course: that of a hegemonic member whose institutions have greater clout thanks to its size, demographics, wealth and central geographic location. This is no longer simply about the German and French leadership which has so often irritated smaller member states. It is about the German Europe as the continuation of Bismarck's iron dream, and later the bloody nightmare under Hitler, and a vision that Helmut Kohl so resolutely rejected as the chancellor of the reunification and first militant proponent of a European Germany.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Europe needs clarity

Der Tagesspiegel agrees with von der Leyen's reasoning:

“The Karlsruhe [constitutional court] ruling could soon lead to courts in Poland or Hungary using the German precedent to cast doubt on the decisions of the European Court of Justice. This would not be good for the survival of the EU, which is already in a critical state. It would therefore make sense for von der Leyen to follow words with deeds and make good on her threat of launching infringement proceedings. With such a procedure, the EU Commission would indeed be entering shaky territory. For not only are the European Central Bank and the ECJ independent - the Federal Constitutional Court is too. But if it were to be definitively clarified that the ECB is solely responsible to the European Court of Justice, that would not be the worst outcome.”

Die Welt (DE) /

Just wishful thinking

Die Welt is irritated by von der Leyen's statement that the German ruling impinges on "European sovereignty":

“The EU is not a state, it's not a federal state, it's not even a confederation of states. It's a community of interests among sovereign states ... There is no European nation, no European constitution and no European sovereignty. There is an EU flag and an EU anthem. The Commission, which is chaired by Ms von der Leyen, likes to talk like a government, but it is not one. And although the European Parliament calls itself the 'directly elected legislative body of the European Union', that too is only partly true. ... A Luxembourg MEP represents around 83,000 inhabitants of his country, a French one ten times as many. To talk of 'European sovereignty' under such conditions is very bold.”

Público (PT) /

EU must stand up to Germany

Opening infringement proceedings against Germany would be an unprecedented step, but given the circumstances this is the only right response, Público stresses:

“Will Europe manage to step up and confront Germany and its ghosts? The ghosts that are united in the AfD - the far-right party at the origins of the trial? The future of Europe depends on this question. It is a Europe that has been in crisis for years, in which the fine words spoken in commemoration of great moments don't fit in with the daily lives of its citizens. Ursula must not fail here, nor must she fail in the fight against the recession we are facing. If there are any more failures the idea of Europe will die or be reduced to the Eurovision Song Contest.”

Haniotika Nea (GR) /

The deep German state

Berlin's EU partners are getting to see its ugly side now, columnist Kyra Adam comments in Haniotika Nea:

“Although it is in a position to do so, Berlin is refusing to offer its help to other European countries that have been badly hit by the pandemic and are on the verge of another economic collapse. ... It is doing this very persistently and ostentatiously to make sure that everyone understands that Germany is the only leading force in the European Union. It has opened its coffers to save only the big German companies. Worse still, it is clearly demonstrating that it wants to 'conquer' Europe using the weapons of economic oppression against other European countries, particularly countries in the economically unstable European South. ... So we are facing the deep German state.”

Krytyka Polityczna (PL) /

Powerful munition for Warsaw and Budapest

The ruling is grist to the mill for governments who have long believed that the EU has too much power, complains Krytyka Polityczna:

“The president of the Polish constitutional court, Julia Przyłębska, noted with satisfaction that her German counterparts have confirmed that national courts have the final say. ... If Germany ignores the ECJ, why should anyone in Warsaw be worried when a European court criticises the 'reforms' of the Polish judicial system? ... With this legal battle Karlsruhe has for now given powerful ammunition to Budapest, Warsaw and all those who question EU law and Brussels' right to 'interfere'.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

The end of an autocratic EU

The Karlsruhe ruling is a sign of stronger democracy and rule of law, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung comments approvingly:

“Germany has joined an EU in which the member states are the masters of the treaties - and every citizen has a right to expect EU institutions to abide by the jointly agreed rules. ... This is why the Karlsruhe ruling is so important at a time when the EU is being subjected to strong centrifugal forces. As long as there is no mandate for a debt union the ECB cannot create one. ... As a union of states, the EU is bound by the principle of democracy and is a community based on the rule of law. This message must be conveyed - particularly to Eastern Europe. This is not the end of the EU, but hopefully the end of its distant, autocratic form.”

El País (ES) /

A clear affront to EU authority

El País is annoyed by the ruling:

“The most questionable aspect is that [the Federal Constitutional Court] is contradicting its superior authority on matters of European law, the EU Court of Justice, which it had previously consulted on this issue. And it is calling the latter's competence into question with the theory that states are the 'owners' of their treaties and can sidestep their norms if, according to their own criteria, these norms exceed their competences. The European institutions can hardly follow this theory. Because even if it is the governments that sign the treaties, the interpretation of European law is a matter for the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, as the highest instance. This is what the EU Treaty stipulates (Article 19). Not only the ECB must now take a clear stance, but also the ECJ.”

De Standaard (BE) /

Don't leave it all up to the ECB

The ruling casts a shadow over the financial stability of the euro which has already been in doubt for some time, warns De Standaard:

“There is little point in cursing Karlsruhe. Germany's restraint in monetary policy is well-known. The sums that the ECB has created out of nowhere for years on end are slowly but surely becoming unreal. It's time to recognise that the ECB can't do everything on its own. The euro countries must assume responsibility for their fate in the joint struggle to overcome successive crises. The euro will not be able to withstand their eternal disunity in the long run.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

Not written in stone

La Repubblica tries to be optimistic:

“Even if the decision relates to to the bond-buying scheme of 2015 it casts a shadow on the current bond-buying scheme in which the share of Italian bonds is far greater than that of other countries. But the situation is not hopeless: first of all the ruling is only provisional; the German government could persuade the hapless judges in Karlsruhe to show a little common sense: even the ECB will have no problem answering their doubts. After all, the bank's current interventions, which are vital for Italy, seem to be above criticism because in an exceptional and devastating situation like this pandemic, they are 'proportionate'.”