Monday

18th Feb 2019

The rise of the untransparent 'Eurogroup'

  • Jeroen Dijsselbloem - not legally obliged to appear in front of any parliament in his role as Eurogroup president (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The Eurogroup has emerged as a key body in the EU's evolving economic governance, playing a major role in the current dispute with Greece over further bailout money, yet it is democratically accountable to no one.

Legally-speaking the monthly forum for eurozone finance ministers has a narrow remit: It is not an EU institution and it cannot adopt legally binding decisions.

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But the scale of the economic and financial crisis of the recent years and the resulting swathe of laws to try and ensure such a crisis never happens have turned it into a de facto player in EU's fledgling economic governance system.

Its role was enhanced by the so-called six-pack of laws - which strengthens the rules underpinning the euro - and then further by the two-pack - which bolsters economic surveillance in the single currency states. Its meetings see discussions on draft national budgets and bailout programmes and are attended by the euro commissioner and the European Central Bank.

The latest manifestation of its power is the ongoing battle between Greece and its lenders over what reforms Athens has to carry out in order to get a much-needed pay-out of bailout money.

The money will only be released once the Eurogroup gives the green light.

Yet its decisions have no legal effect - something the EU court spelt out recently in response to an attempt to overturn the Cyprus bailout and its conditions, including an unprecedented raiding of savers' accounts.

Rene Repasi, a professor at Leiden University, notes the transparency vacuum in which the Eurogroup operates.

"There is a no legal obligation of the Eurogroup to inform the public or other institutions about its activities. There are no transparency rules for the Eurogroup. There are no minutes of its meetings."

Speaking to MEPs in the constitutional affairs committee on Tuesday (5 May), Repasi also pointed out that Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Eurogroup president, is "not obliged" to appear in front of any parliamentary body nor does he have to worry about any "consequences" if the Eurogroup makes a bad decision.

Daniela Schwarzer from the German Marshall Fund said the "parliamentary component lags behind" in Eurozone decision-making.

She noted that empowering national parliaments is not necessarily the solution, pointing to the fact that the German parliament has become a "de facto veto player" in all substantial decisions following a series of rulings by the country's constitutional court.

"If you look at it from a trans-European perspective you may ask yourself how legitimate it is to have such veto players in national contexts."

Taking a wider look at accountability in eurozone governance, Schwarzer notes that 'democratic legitimacy' can mean different things to different member states.

In Greece, it centers on the fact that while the government has changed - a radical left party was elected to power in January - it appears not possible to change policy.

But in Germany there is irritation that euro "rules that are there to be applied are not being applied in the way that is anticipated".

How much economic governance?

Meanwhile, economist Daniel Gros, from the CEPS thinktank, raised some fundamental questions about the nature of economic governance.

He said economic policy co-ordination "makes sense" when there is a crisis, but questioned how much it is needed if there is no crisis.

“Let’s take the famous structural reforms. Very often it is said – ‘Germany, please reform your services so that your productivity in services increases. Then there will be more investment and demand and other countries will benefit'.”

But, said Gros, the exact opposite argument could also be made. Services reform could make Germany more competitive and result in it importing less from other countries “so the others could lose”.

He said such examples illustrative the “practical problems you face when you think of running an economic policy for the entire area".

Gros cautioned against an overly prescriptive economic governance policy outside times of crisis.

"One should be very careful in not overloading mechanisms for economic governance by trying to achieve too much coordination on things that we, in Brussels, think are perhaps good and useful but for which we cannot really be certain about the strong spillover effects."

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