France’s Golden Rule

13 Aug

At the end of last week, France’s Constitutional Council announced that the recent European treaty on economic governance was in conformity with France’s Constitution. This avoided a complicated constitutional amendment procedure by which the European treaty would have been made compatible with French constitutional law. France’s president, François Hollande, is now freer to introduce the terms of the treaty by way of a simpler parliamentary procedure.

The reaction to the decision has been varied across the political spectrum. The far left has expressed its dismay at the imminent entry into law of a treaty they see as being far too focused on budget cuts and austerity, with little attention paid to growth. Having campaigned so firmly on the slogan of growth rather than austerity, the left of the Socialist Party feels the President has broken his promises. The right argues instead that the Constitutional Council’s decision means that the bite has been taken out of the treaty: rather than inscribing its terms into the constitution, the government is obliged merely by an ordinary law which it could in principle revoke. The famous “Golden Rule” by which governments would be obliged to aim for balanced budgets has been watered down. It is time for excessive spending Southern Mediterranean-style, claims the right.

The Constitutional Council’s decision is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the attention and importance attached to this decision reflects the central role played by this institution in French politics. This has not always been the case but in recent decades, there has been a firm juridification of French political life, evident in the way political questions have been recast as legal matters (for a history of the Council, read Alec Stone Sweet). Secondly, in terms of the decision itself, the Council rightly argues that there is nothing in the treaty that violates in any absolute sense national sovereignty. This points to a broad trend in European integration today: new initiatives are predominantly undertaken in the form of agreements between national executives, with little by way of transfers of power to supranational bodies. The present treaty is no exception to this general rule and there is little in it which identifies how exactly the treaty rules will be policed. Thirdly, the Council also rightly argues that the adoption of constraining rules with regards to government spending – and macro-economic policymaking more generally – is in fact nothing new. It is a continuation of a trend already well-established in the 1990s with the introduction of the Maastricht criteria. And the French Constitution already contains within it an explicit orientation towards balanced budgets. Those opposing the treaty on the grounds that it violates national sovereignty are well over a decade behind.

This leaves us with is a key paradox. European treaties are the work of national executives and they do not empower supranational agents. But in substance they limit further the discretion that these national executives have to make policy. At the heart of Europe today we find national politicians who exercise their authority by binding themselves at the European level. The broader problem here is that rules – whether constitutionally enshrined or not – have replaced discretion as the basis for political decision-making. The political point at stake here is whether or not tigher controls on government spending will help or hinder a return to growth in Europe. And it is the difficulty national governments have in commanding the consent of their populations to the cuts they are envisaging which explains their preference for a collective, rule-based set of policies.

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