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2nd Mar 2024

German MPs clash with Merkel on EU powers

  • The German parliament - MPs want to control their ministers also when in Brussels (Photo: Wikipedia)

The German parliament has clashed with chancellor Angela Merkel over control of Berlin's EU policy, with parliamentarians threatening to place "tougher" scrutiny on positions taken by German ministers in Brussels if they continue to ignore the parliament's concerns.

Just after taking over the six-month presidency of the EU, Berlin finds itself locked in a conflict with the German parliament's EU affairs committee on how much freedom German ministers have in order to negotiate compromises when they meet with EU counterparts.

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The clash was triggered after an EU justice ministers' meeting on 4-5 December, when German minister Brigitte Zypries gave her consent for the creation of a new EU fundamental rights agency - despite the government earlier promising parliamentarians to take a "very restrictive position" corresponding to the parliament's deep scepticism toward the new body.

A letter sent to chancellor Merkel by the head of the parliament's EU affairs committee Matthias Wissmann - a member of Ms Merkel's own centre-right CDU party - says "I do not want to hide the displeasure of my fellow committee member colleagues that it could not be clarified why apparently not a single word was said about the reservations of the German Parliament during the justice and home affairs council meeting."

Parliamentarians across the German political spectrum view the EU fundamental rights agency in its agreed form as bureaucratic, top-heavy and encroaching on the competencies of the human rights watchdog the Council of Europe - a position they had made clear to Ms Merkel ahead of an EU leaders summit in June.

MPs angry

The Wissmann letter, dated 22 December, threatens that parliament will in future tie German ministers to formal mandates in EU meetings if the government continues to ignore deputies' concerns.

"When dealing with the fundamental rights agency, the European affairs committee took a moderate approach and trusted ...the 'very restrictive position' pledged by the government," the document states.

"Should [the committee] find that the parliament's reservations are not presented by the government at decisive meetings at the European level, this procedure is up for a fundamental review."

Ms Merkel's office has not yet replied to the letter, but a German government spokesman pointed out that the relationship between the government and the parliament has "just been newly arranged," referring to a September deal between the two institutions.

The deal obliges German ministers to closely stick to a legal "position" taken by MPs before EU meetings - but Berlin does keep the right to go its own way in the case of "important foreign policy or [EU] integration reasons."

"There is no need for additional rules," the spokesman said characterising the fundamental rights agency row as a "specific case."

Watchdog role

But German deputies appear unwilling to be sidelined by the government on the Brussels stage, with Mr Wissmann telling EUobserver "the EU cannot on the one hand speak about engaging national parliaments more strongly and thus making the EU more transparent, and on the other hand defy legitimate concerns of countries' democratic representations."

Liberal deputy Markus Loening said the parliament "should consistently use its possibilities to influence the government and frequently make guidelines how [the government] should negotiate."

Some MPs however favour giving more room to ministers negotiating Brussels deals, with social democrat deputy and former transport minister Kurt Bodewig stating "in [EU] council meetings - I am saying this from my experience as a minister - it's often about reaching compromises. Every government has to be able to move."

The German parliament recently opened its own office in Brussels in order to more closely monitor EU legislation, following other national parliaments which have a stronger tradition of keeping a close eye on Brussels' dealings.

Ministers in Denmark and Finland, for example, are tightly bound to their parliament's mandates, while the Dutch parliament has recently started acting like a keen watchdog on "subsidiarity" - the principle that the EU should only do what cannot be done at the regional and national level.

Meanwhile, the European Commission last year begun sending draft proposals directly to national parliaments, with the EU's network of national parliaments, COSAC, jointly testing some of these proposals to see if they meet the subsidiarity principle.

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