Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Opinion

On bad parking in Brussels and EU law

  • 'Sanctions are always a failure' the economic affairs commissioner said (Photo: fabonthemoon)

Every evening at least half a dozen neighbours park their cars on the pavement outside my house in Brussels, blocking the passage of pedestrians and in clear contravention of the law. The police usually turn a blind eye and when they deign to do something they politely ask the culprits to move their cars rather than fining them.

Even the council’s alderman for mobility refuses to condemn the practice. When I went to see him to complain about it, he told me locals would be up in arms if bollards were erected to stop them parking on the pavement.

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What has all this got to do with Europe? Quite a lot actually.

The genius of the EU is that its laws take precedence over national ones, are binding, enforceable in the European Court of Justice, and punishable by fines if broken – at least in theory.

The Union takes great pride in this ‘rule of law,’ lecturing others about its necessity and making it a precondition for being recognised as a candidate country.

The problem is that those in charge of making sure EU rules are applied often take the same attitude to law enforcement as the Brussels police. Take the EU commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici.

Last week, when France was again judged to have breached the EU’s growth and stability by racking up a budget deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP, Moscovici – who just happens to be the former French finance minister partly responsible for this high debt – refused to impose fines on Paris.

“Sanctions are always a failure,” said Moscovici, explaining his decision, adding that “if we can convince and encourage, it is better.” Non, monsieur Moscovici. Far from being a failure, sanctions show that flouting rules have consequences.

Remove the threat of punishment and rules are no longer rules but polite requests that can be ignored when inconvenient.

Take this approach and every target the EU sets becomes meaningless, every rule it adopts becomes negotiable and every law becomes breakable. In short, the EU’s cherished rule of law collapses and the Union becomes a glorified League of Nations with states breaching club norms with impunity.

Impunity

If this sounds far-fetched, imagine if a policeman stopped someone for driving 50kmh in a 30kmh zone and then let him or her off with a warning. Then, picture the same policeman pulling over the same driver two more times shortly after - and on both occasions refusing to fine the motorist for speeding.

The message it would send is you are free to break the law at will, safe in the knowledge that you’ll rarely be stopped and almost never sanctioned.

This is the case with France. The EU treaty is quite clear that a country’s budget deficit cannot exceed 3 percent of GDP – although subsequent ‘clarifications’ have muddied the legal waters by giving member states some wiggle room.

In case of repeated infringements of this binding target, a member state can eventually be fined.

A poisoned gift

Paris has already been given two extensions. Now it has been given further two years to meet the target before sanctions are imposed – making a mockery of the original goal and sending a baleful message to markets left wondering if the eurozone’s rulebook is little more than a fanciful wish-list.

Unless he changes tack, Moscovici risks becoming like those Brussels policemen who start every sentence with ‘normalement’ – as soon as they say that word you know you will never be punished for the misdemeanor you have committed and will instead escape with a finger-wagging rebuke.

But it is too easy to put all the blame on the law-enforcers while absolving the law-breakers of responsibility. In 2013, member states flouted – or incorrectly transposed – 1,300 EU laws.

The worst culprits were older members of the club that are often the most vociferous in calling for new legislation – Italy, Spain, France and Belgium are all in the top five, with Greece rounding off the naughty pack.

The commission asked the European Court of Justice to consider financial penalties in just 14 of these cases.

After France was handed yet another ‘get out of jail’ card, commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told El País, “One can have the impression that France received a gift [with two more years to cut its deficit], but that is a poisoned gift.”

Slaps on wrist

Indeed, France – like Italy and Belgium which also received slaps on the wrist from the commission for flagrantly ignoring EU guidelines - is discovering that membership of the euro leaves it with three unenviable choices for managing its economy.

Firstly, it can cut its deficit within the agreed timeframe – which will require over €4 billion in budget cuts this year alone and will almost certainly lead to greater hardship for millions of French men and women, a drop in support for the EU and an increase in votes for the National Front.

Secondly it can brush aside the rules – as it has done so far – and risk a fine that will damage its weak economy even more.

Finally, it can try and change the rules – as it did in 2005 when, together with Germany, it essentially ripped up a previous version of the growth and stability pact.

All three choices are painful, but at least the first upholds the law, honours previous commitments and underlines the EU’s founding principle that rules are only worth the paper they are written on if enforced.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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