Belgium's enterprise minister Paul Magnette criticised the European Commission for being "too tough" on his country and pleaded for more "margin of manoeuvre" for national governments to enforce EU budget discipline rules.
Magnette made these statements at a conference, auspiciously titled "Can one criticize Europe?", organized by the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB).
The minister, who is also a Socialist leader and high profile professor in the same university, was recently in the centre of a controversy, after he made comments critical to the EU executive, for which he was reprimanded both by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and Council President Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian Prime Minister.
Reportedly, Magnette said that the economic and budgetary policy, imposed on EU countries, condemned them "to a 15-year-long recession". He added that he doubted that the Commission had the democratic legitimacy to impose such policy.
"We must stand up to the European Commission, as the big states do, or we will slip into an ultra-liberal Europe," he was quoted as saying.
Di Rupo tried to put the record straight by saying that the Commission had acted in accordance with the new powers granted to it by member countries. Van Rompuy said he did not understand Magnette's outburst, as he knew him as "a real specialist of Europe".
Some commentators took on Magnette's statement to conclude that the Walloon Socialist Party had turned eurosceptic.
Didier Viviers, the ULB rector, argued Europe was seen more and more by some as a "myth" or "a religion", which compelled others to desecrate it in different ways.
He also noted that as Europe was in a crisis, daring to criticise it amounted to treason, despite the Latin proverb Qui bene amat bene castigat (Who loves well castigates well).
Magnette made it clear that he did not regret his statements and said he was surprised by the "virulence" of the criticism against him, saying his remarks were "not so original". He also underlined he had received hundreds of e-mails of support.
The EU's budget discipline dogma had become "monomaniac," Magnette said, reiterating the view that the only possible result of such policies was recession.
Magnette said the Commission’s role in approving the Belgian budget was close to micro-management. When it rejected the 2.8% deficit forecast of the Belgian government in favour of its own 3.01% projection, the Commission had put the country in the excessive deficit procedure [EDP], which was nothing less than “nitpicking,” he said.
As the Commission has more powers vis-à-vis a country under EDP, the feeling was that the Commission "abuses" its right of control to leverage its power over member countries.
“We, member states, we must resist to the Commission and say we do not agree with your analysis, we think our budget is serious and is under 3%," he said.
In addition, Magnette blasted the Commission for one of its recommendations under the "six-pack" on economic governance, namely abandoning the automatic indexation of salaries. He said this was a major achievement in his country, which dates back from the 1920s and introduced by the Socialists and it should not be abandoned.
"When the Commission says: This system, we don't actually like it, I think they are crossing the line," he said.
Magnette pleaded that EU executive should not "go into the details" and leave it to national governments to find the right tools to achieve the goals defined under the EU's new economic governance process.
The Belgian minister said he realised that he could trigger additional criticism, but added that a final recommendation he would make to the Commission was to be impartial and have the same approach with all countries. This means also the big ones, France and Germany.
"It is not because the Commission is in Brussels, and that it reads the Belgian newspapers, and that the European civil servants know much better the Belgian political life than the situation of other countries, that we should be tougher on Belgium," he said.