Vice-President of the European Commission with responsibility for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Germany and Europe: Euro debate, light bulb war, salt in bread, and the Federal Constitutional Court
Speech – Representation of the European Commission
Berlin, 17 September 2010
Frau Dr. Högl,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It has been a great pleasure for me to take up the invitation from the Europa-Union to today’s event in Berlin and to be here in the capital once again following my earlier visit at the end of April this year to the European House in Unter den Linden. At that time all eyes were on Greece and its spiralling debt. No answer had yet been found to the question of how to avert the Greek debt crisis and prevent the smouldering threat of instability and uncreditworthiness from spreading in the euro area. From my discussions in the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Chancellor’s Office, I relayed back to Brussels Germany’s concerns about the stability of our single currency, which I as a Luxembourger wholeheartedly share.
Today, just five months later, I am happy to say that we have warded off the threat to the euro and its stability thanks to decisive and concerted action agreed in a spirit of solidarity by the EU institutions and the 16 euro-countries. Together the Europeans came up with a rescue package, stabilising Greece through credits and at the same time requiring it to undertake an unprecedented restructuring programme to put its public finances back on a sound footing. This is now being implemented strictly under the watchful eyes of the Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. At the same time we have put up a safety net of €750 billion to provide all the euro-countries with effective protection from renewed speculative attacks against the euro if this should ever prove necessary. This safety net has given the whole of Europe some respite – a respite we must now put to use without delay in order to ensure the long-term stability of European monetary union. The essential prerequisite is a credible commitment by all Member States to ensuring sustainable, sound public finances, reducing debt, and applying forward-looking financial planning for the sake of future generations. Anyone who fails to make savings now, ladies and gentlemen, has completely failed to take heed of the sign of the times! I personally believe that all EU Member States would do very well to follow the German example and incorporate some form of a "brake on debt" in their national constitution.
As you yourselves know, the Federal Republic of Germany has made the largest contribution to the rescue package – in terms of both aid for Greece and the euro safety net. This highlights once again Germany’s economic and political strength in the EU. We in Brussels are very well aware of Germany’s key importance. Without Germany there can be no stable euro. Without Germany as the economic driving force, the revival we are currently witnessing throughout most of Europe would look very different. So I welcome Germany’s greater commitment to stabilising Europe and strengthening European economic and monetary union. And for that reason many of the proposals for reform of our economic and monetary union put forward by Germany over recent months in the van Rompuy task force have also found their way into the Commission’s proposals to tighten the stability and growth pact.
It is, perhaps, rather a cliché to say that in times of crisis many people feel insecure and lose faith in politics. The German Government can see this in the national opinion polls, and the EU institutions can see it on a continent-wide scale. In May – at the height of the euro crisis – only 29% of people in the EU trusted their national governments, while 66% did not. And although the European Union enjoyed the confidence of 42% of people at the time, the figure in Germany was only 37%. This was the lowest approval rating for the EU since the Internet bubble burst in 2001.
Of course, these figures have to be viewed in context, dating as they do from polls in May, at a time when agreement on the euro safety net was not yet in sight. Nevertheless, they should serve as a wake-up call to politicians, both national and European. Particularly in times of a crisis above all, people expect politicians to be decisive, to put aside party-political squabbles and act for the greater good: for the stability of our currency, the economic revival of our continent, and the preservation of our common European values.
At times such as these, then, it is especially important to communicate in clear, plain terms what the political decisions are intended to achieve and how even apparently unpopular cost‑cutting measures are in people’s long-term interest. This poses a particular challenge for the EU institutions. In a crisis it is very easy to shift the blame for unpopular measures onto Brussels. Perhaps it is even inherent in the system that in this kind of situation the Commission sometimes has to play the role of political "scapegoat" if, say, a national government might otherwise be unable to implement the necessary reforms. I do believe, for instance, that the Commission should be helping the Greek Government to push through tax or pension reforms that are in the interest of healthy public finances and hence of all the euro-countries.
However, the "scapegoat” role should not be exaggerated. Constantly heaping all the blame on the "Brussels Eurocrats" may be politically tempting, but it is neither proper nor is it good for the stability of our shared European institutions. The European Commission wants to be an even-handed partner of all the Member States. But that presupposes fairness on both sides. In this context, I had no option at the beginning of the week but to defend the European Commission in no uncertain terms against allegations from one of the big Member States. The Member States themselves laid down the Commission’s role as guardian of the Treaties, as the guardian of European law, in the EU Treaties. It hasn't just taken over this task; actually, this role exists in the interests of a Europe that - thankfully – is united not by force of arms but by the force of the law we have jointly fashioned. Europe’s historically unique model of integration will only last if all the Member States are united in defending our common European values and the European legal order that we have created. I welcome the fact that after a few days of discord, unity among the leading players in Europe has been restored.
Myths about what goes on in Brussels are sometimes amusing, but they can also seriously harm the work of the European institutions and damage their standing with the public. Of course as a former journalist I realise, that "Brussels Eurocrats ban our light bulbs" is a very eye-catching headline. But it completely overlooks the seriousness of the subject. First, the EU institutions are falsely portrayed as the authors of a policy initiative that ultimately goes back to what in my view was an excellent proposal made by the German Chancellor. More to the point – and just as unfairly – it stokes up popular feeling against a highly sensible scheme. Certainly, the traditional light bulb is a brilliant invention. But we have to consider how a light bulb actually works. Light is generated by passing a current through the filament to heat it sufficiently so that it gives off light. Only 5% of the energy used is actually converted into light – 95% is dissipated in the form of heat, as anyone who has touched a light bulb with their bare hands after it has been on for 30 minutes is painfully aware. But the purpose of a light bulb is to provide light – not to heat your living room! There really are much more efficient ways to use energy. And that is why all 27 EU Member States, supported by the European Parliament, unanimously adopted the Eco-design Directive, under which the familiar light bulb that we have known for over a hundred years is to be replaced by more modern forms of lighting.
Germany is in many respects the home of the fight against climate change. Mrs Merkel is quite rightly regarded as THE climate protection Chancellor. And I believe it is perfectly right that step by step over the coming years we should all switch to cheaper and less wasteful forms of lighting. The benefits for consumers will be lower electricity bills and better environmental protection. After all, the fight against climate change should not be empty words. And politicians must be prepared at European and national level to defend what we have decided and explain it to people in straightforward terms.
This challenge has also arisen in connection with another Euro-myth: Brussels’ alleged plan to ban "salt in bread", a plan that at times brought German bakers in particular out onto the streets and once even made it to the front page of the sober Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I understand, of course, that interfering with German bread or beer is a sensitive matter. We Luxembourgers would react in exactly the same way. But the whole fuss had very little to do with the reality of the EU legislation in question. The proposal did not concern bread as such, but foodstuffs which make special "health” claims, use advertising slogans asserting that the product is fantastically healthy, highly beneficial to digestion or the immune system, and the like as selling arguments. So any firm whose potato crisp packets state that they are "rich in fibre" must – for the consumer’s benefit – also indicate the less wholesome ingredients, such as salt, sugar, and saturated fat. What the scheme is aimed at, then, is to ensure transparency, for instance in the case of fatty potato crisps that are advertised as being good for you; but not targeting German bread rolls or brown bread, which – as everyone knows, even without any special advertising – are generally good for you. So please take note: to say that the EU wants to ban salt in bread is pure invention, something cooked up by imaginative lobbyists.
Allowing myths about European schemes to establish themselves inevitably undermines trust among citizens and fosters Euroscepticism. Of course, the EU institutions must do what they can to make better laws and to explain matters better and in plain language. But I have noticed that Brussels is often exploited in a way that cannot be prevented solely by legislating better and communicating in a way people can more readily understand. Organisations like the Europa-Union are already doing a great deal to prevent Euro-myths from gaining a firm foothold. But perhaps sometimes we need a national minister to correct falsehoods about proposals from Brussels at the earliest opportunity.
With the Treaty of Lisbon in force since 1 December last year, we all have a fresh chance to do away with EU myths, because the Treaty reinforces citizens’ rights considerably. With its reforms to the structure and functioning of the EU, the Treaty now makes it possible to deliver effective outcomes for citizens and to strengthen the Union as a community of law. This combination is unique. We should use it to inform people better about the tangible rights and benefits, old and new, which they enjoy as citizens of the European Union.
In particular, the Treaty reinforces citizens’ rights thanks to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is now legally binding and has the same force of law as the European Treaties themselves. An EU legislative proposal that contravenes the Charter cannot become law. This means that Europeans’ fundamental rights will be protected from the very outset, because we, the EU Commissioners, scrutinise legislative initiatives for compliance while they are still being drafted. In addition the Treaty makes it possible for the Charter of Fundamental Rights to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights.
This is because the Treaty endows the European Union with a single legal personality. On 1 March this year we began the accession negotiations. In this way the European Union as such, and not just its individual Member States, will be bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. A community of law comprising 27 Member States needs coherent standards on fundamental rights. Accession will provide a comprehensive safeguard, universally anchoring the fundamental rights of every EU citizen.
This more robust attitude to fundamental rights is of key importance if the EU is to be citizen-friendly and offer legal certainty. But this alone is not sufficient. We must translate those fundamental rights and the new citizens’ rights enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon into concrete acts. This can be done under the Treaty of Lisbon with the closer involvement of the European Parliament in all legislation directly affecting citizens and with the closer involvement of national Parliaments in the work of the EU institutions.
Many of you probably remember the ancient temple used to illustrate the division of the EU into three pillars: a European Communities pillar, a "CFSP" pillar covering the common foreign and security policy, and a pillar covering judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police cooperation. The Treaty of Lisbon brings down the curtain on this structure of the EU. Since 1 December 2009, these pillars of the EU have been merged into one; the primacy of supranational law now applies in every area of EU policy, and the involvement of the directly elected European Parliament is now the general rule. This means that there is no longer any doubt: the whole of Union law has to be applied directly by the national and local courts in every Member State of the EU.
You are all aware that over the years there have been doubts as to whether Germany fully acknowledges the primacy of European law. These doubts have led to considerable legal uncertainty in the single European market. Can you do business with German firms and consumers with any legal certainty, if you have to worry every day that a German court might declare that the rules jointly agreed in Brussels are inapplicable? I therefore welcome the recent decision by the Federal Constitutional Court on the Mangold judgment of the European Court of Justice. I am sure you know the background: A German firm had set a fixed duration for a contract with an older employee – contrary to its practice for comparable contracts with younger employees. This was permitted under German law as it stood, but not under European law, as the European Court of Justice held in its 2005 Mangold judgment. In the grounds for its judgment, the European Court referred, among other things, to the principle prohibiting age discrimination, which it argued was a general principle of EU law. The firm concerned indirectly attacked the judgment by way of a constitutional complaint in Karlsruhe, arguing that there was no such principle in EU law and that in the Mangold judgment the EU was far overstepping its powers.
Now I myself am no great lover of over-detailed legislation to combat discrimination. In the past some initiatives, at both national and EU level, have missed their mark. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the principle of non-discrimination has been firmly anchored in EU law for many years. There is a very prominent witness to that: Roman Herzog, the former Federal President and President of the Federal Constitutional Court. He chaired the EU Convention on Fundamental Rights which had the task of codifying the EU’s hitherto unwritten fundamental rights, as developed in the case-law of the European Court of Justice; in other words his job was to translate them into a written catalogue of fundamental rights.
The Convention, under Herzog’s leadership managed to do this very successfully. Personally, I am pleased to note that the EU Charter completed in 2000 by the Convention under Herzog states at the very outset: "Human dignity is inviolable." Those are the very words with which the German Basic Law begins, and they now also introduce the EU catalogue of fundamental rights, as an expression of the specific orientation, based on certain values and respect for humanity, of all public authority in the European Union.
But the catalogue of fundamental rights drawn up by the Convention also includes the following in Article 21: "Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited." In view of all this, I have in the past been astonished to find prominent legal academics — including, to my great regret, Roman Herzog himself — railing against the Mangold judgment, delivered five years after the Charter was drawn up, in articles with headlines such as "Stop the European Court!". You may think what you like of the scope of the ban on discrimination I have just quoted: But surely the European Court cannot be criticised for recognising and applying a rule that the Convention itself drew up? This, too, has to be said loud and clear under the heading of "dispelling Euro-myths".
So I welcome the Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling in Karlsruhe on 6 July, by which it held that the European Court’s Mangold judgment does not overstep the competences transferred to the EU by the Member States. The fact that in their judgment the judges in Karlsruhe have developed the principle of interpreting European law favourably, and their deep understanding of the inner workings of European integration as a whole, is evidence of a very constructive approach to European integration. That is a good basis for Germany’s future European policy. And it is a very good basis for the EU institutions to shape Europe in partnership with Germany and to continue moving Europe forward in the interests of its citizens. Avoiding myths, but working in the common interest for a stable, value‑driven, and citizen-friendly Europe.
Thank you for your attention.