Britain-Germany

Downsizing Brussels

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, left, speaks with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble during a meeting of eurozone finance ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. Greece's two biggest parties resumed talks Monday to agree on who should be the country's new prime minister, after reaching a historic power-sharing deal to accept a massive financial rescue package and prevent imminent bankruptcy. Fellow European governments will want concrete progress by the evening, when eurozone finance ministers meet to discuss the possibility of unfreezing bailout loans that had been kept on hold while the country sorted its political turmoil. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, left, speaks with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble during a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    By advocating reforms of the E.U. in Brussels, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, may play a role in helping keep Britain in the European Union.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germany’s finance minister has proposed stripping the European Commission of its powers to enforce some of the European Union’s rules, according to a German newspaper.
    • Wolfgang Schäuble wants issues such as competition enforcements to be handled by a separate institution, similar to Germany’s independent Bundeskartellamt regulator.
    • British Prime Minister David Cameron also wants to claw back powers from the European Commission, part of his quest to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s E.U. membership.
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    Audio

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The German finance minister is reportedly calling to broadly reform the powers of the European Union government, a diplomatic opening to Britain that could bring about a retrenchment of central power after years of its gradual expansion from Brussels and Strasbourg.

In mid-July, Wolfgang Schäuble floated the idea of creating a new E.U. wide antitrust regulator – similar to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission or Bundeskartellamt – that would sever the political link between the Brussels-based European Commission’s power-setting and administrative roles.

The proposal, first reported by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is a move toward Britain, which is contemplating leaving the 28-nation European Union unless its members – including Germany – agree to reform and clip its administrative wings in many areas of national law.

That may not be enough to keep Britain in the zone, some observers said. In fact, some may interpret it as just the opposite – a further attempt to grab policymaking away from the British government.

“I suspect they (the British) would be cautious about any process which took powers away from an increasingly politicized E.U. Commission to an unaccountable, technocratic organization in Brussels” said Thomas Raines, research associate at Chatham House, a London think tank.

Whether they can eventually agree on a face-saving set of reforms that can keep Britain in the European Union, Mr. Schäuble and British Prime Minister David Cameron both have problems with the form of European government being championed by E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the longtime Luxembourg national leader and Brussels heavyweight.

In their minds, Mr. Juncker is turning the European Commission into a too intrusive, political presence – the sort of European government that goes far beyond what they believe is the Commission’s role as an impartial enforcer of rules and treaties governing the 28-nation bloc.

For Mr. Cameron, who is expected to call a referendum in Britain on its E.U. membership next year, the issue is a fundamental one — a difference over the structural reach of Brussels and its influence.

For Mr. Schäuble, a reform of the E.U. is looking better and better after his own frustrating efforts to take a tough line with Greece in its euro zone rescue.

The timely but unlikely common interests have the potential to help keep Britain in the European Union.

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