Most of us have gotten used to equating the word "reform" with that of "austerity" or other anti-social policies when listening to mainstream political discourse. Such code words have become standard in the world of neoliberal religion. However, talks about reforming the European Union (EU) toward a more democratic and social model has now become usual among leftist parties in Europe. Under this new light, we might wonder whether Europe could indeed be “reformed”, though for the better in this case, as suggested by anti-austerity programs like those of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
Indeed, the campaign for next elections in Spain has begun and in spite of the many attempts of conservative forces to portray Podemos as either corrupt or as Venezuelan puppets, polls show that the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, might very well become the new Prime minister of Spain before the end of 2015, hence following the steps of Tsipras and Syriza.
Podemos ambitious program
Podemos is only a year old and their political program might evolve substantially as they gain experience and strategic insight. Last year’s European Elections saw this new political formation reach nearly 8% of votes against all expectations.
For this year’s elections in November/December -- arguably the most important in Podemos’ short yet intense history -- no political program has so far been released, forcing political analysts to feed on what their leaders say in interviews, public events and also the few written documents available to the public.
Among those documents available to the press, however, and short of the official political program for 2015, one seems to stand out as what seems to be the draft for Podemos’ 2015 campaign program. It is the Economic Project for the People (“Proyecto Económico para la Gente”) by Vicenç Navarro and Juan Torres López, two Keynesian economists whose renown dates back to the early days of the May 15th 2011 movement and the publication of the very popular pamphlet “Hay Alternativas” (“There are alternatives” in reference to Thatcher’s infamous tagline).
This 68-pages-long document first offers a diagnosis similar to what they presented in their previous publication and secondly tries to outline the main steps towards recovery and towards “democratizing the economy”, as suggested by the tagline.
Undoubtedly a longer than usual draft which focuses mainly on economic policies. However, the likeliness of it becoming the backbone of Podemos’ program for 2015 makes it a must-read.
Considering how most economic policies that Podemos aspires to depend on Brussels, legally and politically, it therefore seems more than legitimate to examine the different proposals of reform of the EU Treaties -- better known as the Lisbon Treaty -- found in this document.
Case study: reform of the ECB
A point-by-point study of every amendment suggested or implied by Podemos’ draft document would require a much longer post. We will select a case that illustrates the obstacles that the Lisbon Treaty represents for Podemos in Spain and more generally for real social change in Europe by studying the most explicit call for reform of the Lisbon Treaty, namely the European Central Bank (ECB).
- “Democratization of the ECB by making it answerable to the European Parliament, which should name its members” (Proyecto Economico para la Gente, nov. 2014, p. 11)
- “Modification of the ECB’s mission to include to goal of full-employment and to allow it to collaborate with the governments to attain sustainabilityand social welfare by allowing it to purchase their debt” (p. 44)
These are two crucial amendments of the European Central Bank’s statute and mission for any movement to implement progressive policies. These have the merit of being rather clear in their enunciation, unlike what one is accustomed when dealing with some sections of the Lisbon Treaty.
Unfortunately, these two proposals are also in direct conflict with the statute of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB) established by the Treaty of the European Union (TEU).
Indeed, articles 127 and 282 clearly state that the ESCB’s “primary objective is to maintain price stability”. The TEU makes it clear that the ECB serves that purpose and that purpose only. Clearly, if Podemos were to adopt this proposal -- undoubtedly they will -- they would have to proceed to a revision of the lisbon Treaty, though they have never mentioned this important fact in any known document available to the public.
As for the second amendment proposal making the ECB answerable to the Parliament, article 282 states clearly that the ECB “shall be independent in the exercise of its powers and the management of its finances. (...) Member States shall respect that independence”.
Once again, no change in the mission of the ECB nor its independence can be contemplated without a formal revision of the Lisbon Treaty.
Fair enough. Afterall, why not considering that option? Why not revising the Lisbon Treaty and make the ECB a more democratic and progressive institution once and for all? Wouldn’t that be a viable option if Podemos came to power?
Art. 48: the one and only legal procedure to amend both EU Treaties
Article 48 is the only article in the entire Lisbon Treaty that shows the way for any Member State to legally revise any clause of the Treaty, whether it is the TEU or the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU).
Now the heart of the matter is that article 48, the only legal procedure to amend any provision of the Lisbon Treaty, requires that any amendment, no matter how small, be adopted unanimously, meaning by all 28 Member States of the EU, or all members of the Eurozone when dealing with the ECB.
In today’s politics, it means Luxembourg could alone veto any proposal to amend the Treaty. It means Germany would have to align with Podemos. It means Malta, Slovenia, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy would all need to converge and perhaps even have their own Pablo Iglesias as head of state or government... The likeliness of this happening at the same time in all 19 Member States of the Eurozone or, regarding non-monetary provisions, all 28 Member States is infinitesimal of course…
Other proposals to reform Europe
However these were not the only proposals that presented such distinctive features leading to such conundrum. Most economic policies present such conflicts with the Treaty, and only in the mind of those perhaps too preoccupied with party politics is it possible to ignore the issue.
For instance, Podemos clearly has a keynesian approach of economics, which makes a whole lot of sense considering the disastrous results of austerity in Europe and Spain in particular. It means that, just like Navarro and Torres suggests, the recovery has to come from public spending first and then let that spending have its natural ripple down effect, boosting growth and employment until pre-crisis GDP levels are reached (or GDP projection levels maybe). It would mean increasing public debt even further than the already high burden (in terms of GDP ratio that is).
It could very well be an option for Spaniards to decide on were it not for article 126 that states that “Member States shall avoid excessive government deficits”, which also gives the EU-Commission, a non-elected body, the power to pretty much reprimand Member States that do not respect this provision.
Therefore any increase in public spending would require, again, a revision of the Treaty through article 48 and hitting the same wall…
The forgotten option: art. 50
The only alternative to the “wall” of the revision procedure of article 48 would be the implementation of article 50 which describes the procedure for exiting the European Union.
Art. 50: “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
Article 50 is a simple procedure which requires no decision making, no voting, no veto rights from any other Member State other than that who wishes to exit the European Union and join Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and other countries which are outside the EU, and also exit the Eurozone and join Sweden, the UK, Denmark, etc.
It is hard to understand why among Podemos’ ranks this proposal never comes up. It would be an interesting debate to have among assembly members within Podemos. Exiting the EU and by definition the Eurozone (one doesn’t go without the other) would render any policy proposals available by giving back Spain its lost sovereignty. This debate is taking place in many countries like the UK, Sweden and even in Germany but seems to have eluded Spanish progressive media and Podemos democratic assemblies.
Conclusion: law is not sexy but it matters
Law is more often than not dull and the Lisbon Treaty is no exception. It is a long a pretty much unknown document by the public. It is at times difficult to convert in lingua franca and hard to grasp for those outside the legal profession. However, law matters a great deal if any progressive movement wants to move towards real democracy and social change. The question of How to implement Podemos program in the context of the Lisbon Treaty needs be addressed and debated.