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Of maidens and roses

Posted by Richard Wednesday, December 15, 2004

When is it permissible to break EU treaty obligations with impunity? In its leader today the Daily Telegraph gives the answer: when it is the stability pact and the culprits are France and Germany.

This is on the back of its report in the business section, announcing that the commission is to let France and Germany off the hook. It has abandoned efforts to punish France and Germany for breach of the stability and growth pact, offering to turn a blind eye to abuse of EU spending rules – something which, incidentally, we picked up last Sunday.

According to the Telegraph, Joaquin Almunia, the newly appointed economics commissioner, has bowed to the political reality, and agreed that sanctions procedures against the eurozone's two biggest economies would now be dropped. "Given the action taken by France and Germany, it would appear that no further steps are required at this point," he said.

In its leader, the Telegraph very much labours the point, that it is the two states that insisted on the stability pact to curb excessive state spending which have now exceeded its maximum budget deficit (three per cent of GDP) for three years running.

It takes to task the French who "do not even bother to disguise the lamentable state of their public finances". With Gallic sang-froid, they cheerfully admit that their deficit will again break the rules next year.

And, asks the Telegraph, will the commission fine the miscreants, as it is obliged to do under the pact? Not likely, it says, once again answering its own question. Brussels bent the rules a year ago to suit the Franco-German axis, and it is content to do so again. This amounts to a de facto repatriation of fiscal sovereignty to the nation states. So the stability pact is now as dead as a dodo, and even less lamented.

In marking its passing, however, the Telegraph fails to an make the obvious and important point. What this affair underlines is that, for all their legal content and framing, treaties are essentially political constructs. Unless there is the political will to make them work, and the signatories agree to be bound by them - not just at the point of signing or ratification, but through their life – they are so much waste paper.

This is something the people who spend their hours pouring over the minutia of treaty texts – the people whom we used to call "barrack-room lawyers" – so often forget. And this has enormous implications for the UK, not least if that unlikely event transpires – the Conservatives win the general election.

Then, we will see the commitment to repatriate the CFP come to the fore, and the barrack-room lawyers will immediately cry that this cannot be achieved for, if we do it unilaterally, we will be hauled up in front of the ECJ and fined zillions of euros. The response now is ready made – just like France and Germany were hauled so severely punished for breaching the Growth and Stability Pact?

And that really is the point. If there is no political will to see the thing through, the small print of a treaty is just ink on a piece of paper.

De Gaulle knew this. As we have observed before, when he learned that his Elysée treaty, which he had so laboriously agreed with Adenauer, had been carved up by the Bundestag, he simply dismissed the news with a verbal shrug, observing: "Treaties are like maidens and roses; they each have their day."