Is Germany’s European Stance In Doubt?

Following a controversial decision by the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, the Bundestag must review a law adopting the Lisbon Treaty. The step is far from being straightforward.

The Lisbon Treaty was approved by Parliament in early 2008 by a strong majority. However, the text was brought before the Court by a group of deputies from the right and the left, all arguing that the Treaty breached Germany's sovereignty by transfering to much power from Berlin to Brussels. In late June, the Constitutional Court decided that the Lisbon Treaty was in accordance with the 1949 Constitution, but asked Parliament to review the law adopting the treaty, spelling out clearly that the Bundestag had the final say on Germany's sovereign interests. Parliament has already decided that it will discuss the matter in two extraordinary sessions at the end of August and at the start of September. The issue comes at a crucial moment for German politics as the country will be voting on September 27 for a new Chancellor. The decision by the Constitutional Court sparked mixed reactions.

The federal government of Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the go-ahead for the Lisbon Treaty and promised to quickly pass a new law adopting the EU Constitution. However, allies of Ms Merkel see things differently. The secretary general of the Bavarian christian-democrats announced the CSU will fight to get the Bundestag to adopt a far-reaching law. Alexander Dobrindt spoke about the need to introduce into the Constitution the reasoning spelled out in the Court's decision, giving constitutional power to the Bundestag over Germany's European policy. This would change a long-standing feature in German politics in which the government has always had the upper hand in this field, with Parliament basically rubber-stamping major decisions taken at the government level.

With the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is introducing a major structural change: it is creating the positions of President and of Foreign Minister while it is also transfering a number of duties from the member States to Brussels, from immigration control to crime-fighting. Germany doesn't want to pursue this path lightheartedly and wants things to be done seriously, just as in the 1990s it argued in favor of a monetary union based on a common currency and an independent central bank. The Court feels that there is an embarrasing conflict between the EU's increasing powers and its lack of democratic roots. By asking Parliament to review the adoption law, the Constitutional Court is pressing German politicians to reflect on how European integration is evolving. Its decision could be seen as a long-awaited and pro-Europe wake-up call. In this context, the CSU's reaction might only be a bout of electioneering. The Christian-Democrats from Bavaria appear to be losing ground in their home state and probably feel that some EU bashing might play well with its voters.

However, the current situation also reflects a deeper and more unsettling form of German euroscepticism. The Constitutional Court does point to the EU's "democratic deficit" and it calls upon Parliament to make sure that it guarantees the voting rights of German citizens. The Court believes the Bundestag must contain the EU's powers within its constitutional rights. The media approved of the call to review the law adopting the treaty, with one newspaper, the best-selling broadsheet Sueddeutsche Zeitung, welcoming the end of "Brussels' despotism". Many commentators argued the Courts decision represents a much-awaited reinforcement of the Bundestag's rights over European matters. In a comment published in the German press, the French-German professor Alfred Grosser asked: "Has Germany become a brake to European integration because it feels it has fully reached its national interests?".

The whole issue comes at a time when EU integration is faltering and German scepticism towards the European project is rising. More than once recently, Germany has showed it believes on self-sufficiency and that it feels little bound to European interests. In late 2008, Berlin argued against an EU fund to save European banks and stopped short of approving a Europe-wide economic stimulus package. As recently as last week a poll by Open Europe showed that 70% of Germans would be against bailing out Ireland, a member State of the eurozone in dire financial straits. In the latest Eurobarometer (Fall 2008), only 43% of Germans said they trust the EU. The Lisbon Treaty will probably pass the German test: Parliament will adhere to the Court's decision and pass a new adoption law. However, the text of the law and its nitty-gritty details will be crucial in understanding the state of Germany's European stance.