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Merkel vs. the European Parliament or Vice Versa?

Published on , , Zagreb

One of the most expected events this autumn was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit in the European Parliament and her discussions with MEPs on hot issues from the European agenda. This is the first "independent" participation of Ms Merkel in debates in the European Parliament after the German rotating EU Presidency in 2007, when she had to appear before the MEPs in her capacity of rotating president. The event on November 7th, however, was different and meant a lot. Various political groups and individual MEPs have been criticising for months the weak German position, the lack of leadership from Germany to overcome the eurozone crisis and for the deepening of the integration process in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

For the two terms of her governance, Chancellor Merkel has created an image, additionally enhanced by the European Parliament, of an "iron lady", whose only purpose is to push for more austerity in the countries with huge debt and economic woes. Her policy for solving the eurozone issues was based on the logic "you have to undertake austerity measures first, then it is possible that we lend you money to help you recover, but you have to work more, to retire later and to follow our example". This approach was hysterically rejected as being "Nazi" by revolting societies throughout the entire southern periphery of the EU. And not a few MEPs called on the German Chancellor from the tribune in Strasbourg or Brussels to go and meet the people in the countries subjected to tough transformation and see for herself how painful reforms are.

And Angela Merkel listened. She made her first visit in Greece from the beginning of the crisis, where she was met quite expectedly by mass protests in the city centre of Athens. The main purpose of her visit was to demonstrate the understanding of the German taxpayer for the difficulties the Greek citizens are going through, but also to remind them how many reforms were yet to be implemented in order to take the country out on the main road to reforms and better future. Although late, that visit was highly estimated. Merkel's appearance in the Parliament, too, is another move that demonstrates a change of the German approach, but not of the policies of the most powerful economy in Europe.

The German Chancellor's speech in the full hall of the European Parliament in Brussels was very modest, targeted and with a very clear mission - I came to listen to you, to see where we can meet in our positions. And although for the Europarliament the main problem in the relations with Germany are the negotiations on the multiannual financial framework because Germany wants a drastic cut of the money for the next 7 years (2014-2020), while the Parliament not only wants the money not to be reduced, but even wants it to be increased, this was not Ms Merkel's preferred topic.

And it was with the budget that the European Parliament chief, Martin Schulz, also a German, opened the meeting. The Chancellor, however, focused on something else. She started with freedom on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 8). In this context, she conveyed the first very important message that the MEPs expected to hear - that the Germans will never forget that their happy development is directly related to EU's history; they will never forget that they owe their prosperity to all their eastern neighbours who fought for freedom. And the key message: "We, the Germans, are aware of our responsibility for a good future of the EU".

During her speech [in German], she made two big gestures. First, she quoted the inauguration speech of Martin Schulz when he was elected president of the Europarliament, saying that "we will either lose or we will all win". Then she quoted the "federal" speech of Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission chief, of September 12th when he, in the margins of his annual state of the union address in the European Parliament, called for a big jump forward and moving toward a "federation of nation states". Then Ms Merkel officially promised to the MEPs: "Germany will do everything possible to allow the EU to continue to ensure freedom and prosperity".

In addition, the Chancellor announced that she would rely on the European Parliament's assistance, which by the way is already viewed with important role in all the ideas for deepening of the European integration, including those under German initiative. Germany was accused last year for its decision to abandon the so called "community approach" and to move forward with an intergovernmental agreement to ensure the adoption of the fiscal compact. In it, the Parliament's role is insignificant which led to Strasbourg's sharp reactions. The German Chancellor, in an attempt to correct this mistake, explained that this is the only European institution that is a legitimate representative of the European citizens.

The old policy, but with a new approach

Under the nice words for the European Parliament, the Commission and the hardship many European citizens are going through, however, could be seen the old German policy of reforms. Ms Merkel announced that she was aware that the crisis had affected the citizens in some countries and that she knew a lot was expected from them. "But I can assure you that in these tough times there are good news - reforms bear fruit. Efforts are not in vain. It is worth it!" She quoted as example Ireland, Portugal, Spain and also Greece, where in her words unit labour costs had fallen notably. She gave as example the Baltic states too, which went through tough reforms but are now much better. Responding to the numerous criticisms that Germany was only focused on austerity, the Chancellor said that consolidation and growth were interdependent, but underscored that growth stemmed from entrepreneurial activity. "This is not something that is solved politically".

And in the context of entrepreneurial activity and growth, Angela Merkel recalled why it came to the Euro Plus Pact, which was the first attempt for closer coordination of economic policies that proved incapable to solve the problems mainly because it remained a wishful political document, unlike the fiscal compact which is legally binding.

For the German Chancellor four elements are essential for exiting the crisis: common financial markets policy; common fiscal policy; common economic policy; strengthening European institutions. In December, the Chancellor expects the EU leaders to adopt an "ambitious road map for renovation of the economic and monetary union", containing measures to be implemented in the next two to three years. Moreover, the issue of treaty changes is no longer a taboo. Angela Merkel warned that treaty changes should not alarm anyone. This will turn into a regular practise, she added.

Regarding concerns that the deepening of integration in the euro area could lead to a division of the EU into two - 17/27 (soon 28 when Croatia joins) - Ms Merkel assured that there is no closed club of euro countries and recalled that from its very establishment the EMU was created with the presumption all EU members to adopt the single European currency. She vowed that she will work "in all cases" for a deeper eurozone, not for a two-speed Europe.

The EU is domestic policy

Although she spoke in support for a leading role of the European Parliament in the transformation processes in the EU, Angela Merkel reminded that national parliaments have to take their responsibility for the integration of the EU too. She quoted a speech by Herman Van Rompuy in February this year when he called the national parliaments "European institutions". "We can summarise this idea as follows: Europe, that is all of us together - Europe, which is domestic policy", the German Chancellor said and explained that it was about an enhanced dialogue between national parliaments and the members of the European Parliament. The purpose was to ensure more democratic legitimacy and control in the process of decision-making. But, she said, it is important legitimacy and control to be exercised at the level at which they are made and implemented, which means national parliaments.

Instead of clearing another worry that the eurozone, after separating, will have apart from own budget but also own parliament, Angela Merkel practically deepened these concerns, saying that "we have to openly discuss in what way the decisions at European level, when they affect the euro area, legitimise the future. For example, we can think whether only deputies from the eurozone countries to vote". Whatever is decided, however, the Europarliament must be the base, the Chancellor underlined.

The British case

Britain is more and more moving away from the EU and this could be seen quite clearly recently when the House of Commons (the lower chamber of parliament) forced the government of David Cameron to fight for a real reduction of the EU budget, which is different from his current position only for a freeze at its current levels. This put the British premier in an even tougher position at European level, where more openly a Brexit is discussed. Right after her visit in Brussels, Chancellor Merkel was to fly directly to London for a dinner with her British counterpart to discuss the mid-term budget. During the Q&A session in the European Parliament, in which only the leaders of political groups took part, the issue of the British status in the EU was raised a number of times.

The culmination was, as usual, when the British ultra conservative MEP Nigel Farage spoke, co-chairman of the Europe for Freedom and Democracy Group, who is gaining more power domestically and represents a real threat for the political status quo. He recommended Angela Merkel, when meeting Cameron, to discuss with him "an amicable divorce". According to Mr Farage, whatever is undertaken at EU level the British prime minister will be forced by the British society to say "no". The German Chancellor invested much emotion in her response, saying that she could not imagine the EU without Britain. "When you are somewhere alone, lost among 7-billion strong population, I don't think it is good for Britain", she said, recalling UK's contribution for the liberation of Germany from National Socialism.

The metaphor of divorce was taken by the leader of the largest political group in the European Parliament - the European People's Party - Mr Joseph Daul, who said that after all it was important who would take custody the kids (the other 26 member states). One of the most troubled kids - Greece - caused a very passionate reaction by the German Chancellor in her otherwise quite composed behaviour. She was irritated by the constant rebukes about the application of inappropriate policies toward Greece which only made the situation worse for the Greek citizens. A speaker in that sense was the co-president of the group Greens and the European Free Alliance, Rebecca Harms, also a German. Angela Merkel spoke to her, saying that "it is not right to organise strikes when privatisation is taking place and when the railways have no revenues to pay salaries, when there is a taxation system but not tax revenues. If we in Europe are incapable of telling each other, in a friendly way, these things, who then, the aliens?"

After almost two hours of debate, Angela Merkel left for London. The MEPs looked satisfied that the leader of the most influential EU member state took time to address them. Given their concern with the Britain's European future, however, may be next to be invited to Strasbourg or Brussels to speak to the MEPs should be David Cameron.

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