The European Commission’s Silent Power Grab

Last week, the European Commission issued an inconspicuously looking seven-page note on economic policy coordination, addressed to the European Parliament and the European Council. Although its publication has attracted scarcely any attention, the document has far-reaching implications. The introduction states, in an unapologetic tone, that:

the Commission considers it important that national plans for any major economic policy reforms are assessed and discussed at EU-level before final decisions are taken at the national level. (p. 2, emphasis added)

While European institutions have traditionally been involved in economic policymaking, their mandate is limited to policing compliance with the rules of the common market and those of the monetary union—with mixed results, one would hasten to add.

The wording of last week’s paper goes way beyond that narrow mandate. While it stipulates that “the process should fully respect national decision-making powers,” (p. 5) it would effectively empower European institutions to harass prospective European reformers in countries that decide to join the scheme. Not that many countries would have a choice—for Eurozone members, there would be a binding requirement to participate in this process of “ex ante coordination.”

Even under the most charitable reading, this would create an additional layer of slow-moving bureaucracy with the potential of delaying reforms. And if “windows of opportunity” for specific economic reforms are limited, it would necessarily imply that certain efficiency-enhancing reforms would be derailed. Arguably, if Slovak or Estonian finance ministers had to justify their tax reforms to their counterparts from France or Germany, the flat tax revolution in Eastern Europe would have never happened.

And why should economic reforms be coordinated across Europe at all? Here’s one argument given by the paper:

 Product, services and labour market reforms as well as certain tax reforms may affect employment and growth in the implementing Member State, and hence the demand for products and services from other Member States. This is because a reform may also have a positive or negative impact on the reforming Member State’s price and non-price competitiveness. (p. 3)

Clearly, cross-border spillovers exist. But the same spillovers exist on a competitive market—whenever a firm changes its strategy or innovates, it can exercise “a positive or negative impact” on sales made by other companies. Yet very few would advocate coordination of innovation or business decisions—partly because the benefits of competition on product or service markets are patently obvious to most people. If anything, the benefits of competition are even more important in the choice of institutions and policies. And that’s why the sneaky power grab by European institutions has to be stopped.