A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Saturday, 29 October 2011

Commission Takes Europe to Court

The European Court of Justice: the Commission's weapon of choice.

It ain't over till it's over. That is not so much the European Commission's motto: -more of its modus operandi. In a major crackdown on national laws that clash with European directive, it has referred or threatened to refer twenty-seven European Union member states to the European Court of Justice. For those that don't unnecessarily complicate things, that's all of them. The alleged infractions are wide-ranging, from conform to environmental directives to an inability to properly implement the Blue Card scheme. The announcement of legal measures against all EU states marks a major increase in the Commission's willingness to take action against perceived incompatibilities between national and EU law.

The possible reasoning for this is two-fold. The long-standing President of the Commission is just about to enter his eighth year in office, and calls for 'more Europe' have never been louder. As the head of executive body of the European Union, an institution which his predecessor once called 'the European government,' the task of transliterating these calls into political reality falls to him. The eurozone crisis has also kicked off the biggest debate in modern times over exactly how the EU should be ran. No, it's not between Euroscepticism and federalism: at the higher echelons of Brussels government, Euroscepticism doesn't even get a look-in. It is between federalism and its slightly more reserved sister, intergovernmentalism.

Historically on the back foot post-Maastricht, intergovernmentalism - where decisions are made by elected heads of state and government ministers through negotiation and compromise, and nation-states generally play a greater role in EU institutions - has been steadily gaining favour amongst the commentariat since the eurozone crisis began, in light of the greater role played by national heads of state and finance ministers. The Commission has appeared either impotent or as part of the triumvirate: compared to previous years when it was at the forefront of economic and constitutional affairs, it has done relatively little. It has not involved itself in the intricacies of the deals and backroom negotiations between heads of state. It has mostly been playing second fiddle to the IMF and ECB when it comes to the arrangements themselves. And, most importantly, it has not stumped up the cash: national governments have, from public funds and our own pockets, of course. Some are beginning to question what its role actually is, and whether it should be downsized - or even whether it is strictly necessary as an institution.

Intergovernmentalism is often seen by committed federalists as a moderate form of Euroscepticism - it is a central tenet of so-called 'soft Euroscepticism,' the belief that EU membership is a good thing but that EU institutions should not hold all the power. It would also see the Commission taking a lesser role in governing the continent, seeing its executive function greatly reduced and its ability to enforce legislation greatly reduced. To the Commission, intergovernmentalism is the fracturing of Europe, the return of national interest, and the diametric opposite of what the European Union is and is supposed to be, and they're determined to stop it at all costs.

The recent surge in court cases is less an attempt to assert its dominance: more a statement that it does have a vital role to play in enforcing European unity. Divorced from most economic decisions, it is going all-out on its role as 'guarantor of the Treaties.' The claim that UK's environmental laws aren't as strict as the Commission says they have to be is only the start of a wider campaign: the Commission is determined to enforce its authority. And that means yet another challenge to the democratic sovereignty of nation-states.

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