EU Council: Will the new German government end “Blame Brussels”?

Chancellor Olaf Scholz being sworn in by President of the Bundestag, Bärbel Bas.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz being sworn in by President of the Bundestag, Bärbel Bas | Photo: Bundesregierung/Steins

A new beginning, a turning point, the start of a transformation — the programme of the new German government is not lacking big words. The coalition of Social Democrats (SPD, red), Liberals (FDP, yellow) and Greens — known in the German media as the “traffic light coalition” — has officially assumed office this week and the expectations are high. But not in all areas do the three parties live up to their pathos. They offer little to nothing to combat the unequal distribution of wealth or the ecologically destructive flood of cars on the roads. But in what is perhaps the most important policy area, an almost revolutionary change is indeed brewing: dealings with partners and institutions in the EU are to change thoroughly. The previous “grand coalition” had a blank spot in this area due to the lack of agreement between the conservative CDU and the SPD. This caused a standstill for years. Many legislative proposals from the EU Commission, from the directive for gender balance on supervisory boards to the expansion of the trans-European rail transport, failed because of ex-chancellor Angela Merkel’s indifference.

The new coalition agreement hasn’t just outlined its positions on pending European legislative projects across the board, from military security to financial policy. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ministers also want to push ahead with the long-overdue democratisation of the EU. Accordingly, the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, ostentatiously ignored by the Merkel government, is to lead to a “constitutional convention” to finally give the EU Parliament the right to propose laws by itself. At the same time, the new German government no longer wants to leave the leadership of the EU Commission to the power games of the heads of government. Instead, it demands, the EU parliamentarians shall elect the next president of the EU Commission, and candidates for the parliament shall stand for elections on transnational lists throughout the EU instead of only in their home constituencies.

Above all, the Scholz government has, for the first time, committed itself to reforming the rotten core of the EU constitution: the blackbox that is the Council of the EU. The coalition agreement states that the meeting of the representatives of the 27 national governments that negotiate Europe’s laws in parallel to the parliament “must become more transparent”. This sounds harmless, but it has explosive power. For it is precisely this central legislative process in the Council’s 150 committees, that are staffed with national civil servants, that the EU governments have so far systematically kept secret. Neither journalists nor parliamentarians have the right to know which government takes which position there. This makes it easy for governments to blame “Brussels” when a law negotiated in this way is unpopular at home, even though they themselves are collectively responsible for the outcome.

As a result, “it is virtually impossible for citizens to understand how a European law came about,” criticises Emily O’Reilly, the EU’s ombudsman. But this “undermines their right to hold their elected representatives to account”.

This mainly benefits well-organised lobbyists. In order to prevent unwelcome legislation, it’s enough for them to organise a blocking minority with the help of the respective ministers of one of the big states. All it takes is for the naysayers to make up at least 36% of the population. As a result, “time and again, important legislative proposals are simply quietly buried in the Council” without the citizens even knowing about it and without those responsible having to justify themselves publicly, according to Franziska Brantner, the European policy spokesperson for the Greens and future State Secretary in the German Ministry of Economics. In the future, she and her colleagues want to mandate the Council to publicly debate all legislative proposals within fixed deadlines. If this were to happen, “blame Brussels” would no longer be an option.

No German government has yet dared to go this far in Europe. The experiment of these three unequal partners is well worth it.