German Bundestag scrutinises 2014 Commission work programme

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The German Bundestag has held its first debate on the European Commission's work programme since the document was tabled in October 2013, EurActiv Germany reports.

While Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) focused on the EU's progress so far, MPs from Germany's Green Party and Social Democrats (SPD) warned against complacency, while the Left party (die Linke) advocated a radical change of course, in the debate held on Friday (17 January).

Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), who chairs the committee on EU affairs in the Bundestag, said the Brussels institution had showed great ambition. It left one to wonder, he said, how the Commission intended to accomplish everything.

"Looking at it plainly, this 2014 work programme will only apply until May when the European Parliament elections take place," said Krichbaum. Although the Commission’s term is not due to expire next summer, he said it is doubtful that the Commission will over-exert itself in the meantime.

Concerning the government debt crisis, Krichbaum said it has become clear that "we not only moved forward, but that we were discussing completely different topics two or three years ago".

"At that time, we had to openly discuss whether the eurozone could eventually break apart, or whether the entire European Union could fall apart," the CDU politician recalled.

Krichbaum said he supported Chancellor Merkel's position when she said bailouts should not be handed out unconditionally. Merkel expressed her support of strict conditionality after an announcement from the European Central Bank in September 2012, saying it was prepared to buy unlimited sovereign bonds from crisis states in the eurozone.

"The ECB made clear…that the future of the euro will to a large extent be determined by political action and that the conditionality is a very important aspect," Merkel said. "Responsibility and checks, or help and checks and conditions, always go hand in hand," she said according to a report by German news agency Deutsche Welle.

At the Bundestag debate on Friday, Krichbaum pointed out that the measures taken by individual member states in the eurozone have paid off: "Today we are discussing other issues. We are please that Ireland was able to leave its bailout behind, that Spain is on the right path." Even Greece is moving in the right direction, he added.

Krichbaum said it was commendable that Europe has "been able to undertake fundamental renovations by installing steel beams in an already existing structure". 

"We now have a financial architecture in Europe that is proven to be stable," the CDU politician said.

European project under pressure

Manuel Sarrazin, European spokesman from the Bundestag faction Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Germany's Green Party), was tougher on the chancellor's Europe policy. While there are signs of recovery, he said, the unemployment rate remains quite high. For this reason, he emphasised that 2014 is an important year to act, rather than simply describing development thus far.

"The Commission's work programme demonstrated that", said Sarrazin. "Stability and smart, forward-looking action is what Europe needs now because the European project is under pressure."

Just a few months before the European elections, the Green politician said, there is still a threat that Eurosceptic populists could gain significance. It is still possible for these groups to reach a position from which they could slow or even hinder pro-European action, Sarrazin warned.

It is important to position oneself against this movement under the framework of the "European constitutional arc". To achieve this, however, Sarrazin said the German government needs to change its Europe policy.

"In Germany's old and new government, the no-alternative argument as a justification for Europe policy has driven the people into the arms of populists," said the Green politician. This result, Sarrazin said, came about  because the chancellor has not been able to strengthen and boldly represent the good arguments for cooperative European action.

Michael Roth (SPD): 'We want to provide robust support to our French friends'

"Europe is still in crisis", said Michael Roth who hails from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and is state minister for European affairs in the German foreign office. "There's nothing nice to say about it," he said.

Roth indicated that reports from Portugal or Ireland show there are ways out of the crisis. Still, he said dramatically high youth unemployment in Europe is a central project which the German government must "address with all of its efforts and a great deal of creativity".

It must be made clear to the younger generation, he stressed, that Europe is "a problem-solver and does not worsen problems".

Roth said the German government is adamant about moving forward with all 28 EU member states.

"We carry the responsibility for Europe and we don't carry it alone. Europe does not need a 'German schoolmaster'. Europe needs a Germany that carries responsibility in solidarity and takes the smaller, bigger and middle-sized states along with it," the European affairs minister said.

This cannot work without close cooperation with France and Poland, Roth said. It is good to hear that French President François Hollande is devoted to more Europe and to a better Europe, said the SPD politician, adding, "in that regard, we want to provide robust support to our French friends."

In a highly-anticipated speech last week, Hollande announced far-reaching economic reforms, including lower taxes and administrative unburdening for companies, that he hopes will restore his country's place in the EU's Franco-German engine. “The future of France is the future of Europe and vice versa," the French president said.

The same goes for Poland, Roth said in the Bundestag debate Friday. The Weimar triangle is an important anchor and a pillar for success, he emphasised. "Especially in Central Eastern Europe, we must include our partners and convince them that Europe is not a project of the West, but one that equally includes the East," the SPD politician explained.

German leadership responsibility does not mean that "we too dominantly exercise our economic and political strength. Historically that did not end up well for us. We're talking about leadership responsibility on the basis of solidarity", Roth explained.

EU at a 'historic low'

Alexander Ulrich, parliamentary manager of Germany's Left Party (die Linke), portrayed things in a more negative light.

"The current situation in the EU is historically bad. Cooperation is historically bad. The approval of the European Union is at a historic low." Ulrich attributes this outcome to the policies of the troika, European Commission and the German government.

The plans written in the Commission's work programme are only a continuation of its policy from previous years, Ulrich contended.

In the banking union, as it is currently negotiated, taxpayers will continue to be "taken hostage" for speculative losses, he said. The politician from Germany's left said his party would push to shrink and strictly regulate the financial sector.

"Banks must finally be under democratic control so that Europe's economic perspective can be restored," Ulrich emphasised.

Regarding German leadership in the financial crisis, Ulrich was critical of the country's position: "We always pretend like the crisis is over for us, as if we don't have anything to do with it and are in a position to tell other countries what they should do."

With its policy of foreign trade surpluses, Ulrich said, Germany has also contributed to the crisis: "Our foreign trade surpluses are the debts of other countries."

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