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Analysis: The European Court of Justice's bitter spat with Germany's constitutional court

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Guy Verhofstadt
Guy Verhofstadt   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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“If every constitutional court of every member state starts giving its own interpretation of what Europe can and cannot do, it’s the beginning of the end,” proclaimed liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt last week.

The beginning of the end of the EU? Even by Verhofstadt’s usual punchy standards, well, this was quite punchy.

His comments followed the explosive decision by the German Constitutional Court, which ruled that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had acted outside its mandate in allowing the European Central Bank's quantitative easing measures.

German judges have now given the European Central Bank (ECB) a three-month deadline to produce a proportionality assessment that justifies its €2 trillion bond-buying to keep Germany’s central bank participating. Essentially, the court is challenging the ECJ’s supremacy.

But the European Commission has hit back. Its president Ursula von der Leyen — herself a native German — exclaimed yesterday: “The final word on EU law is always spoken in Luxembourg. Nowhere else.” The European Commission is even talking about taking legal action against the German government. The Vice President, Věra Jourová, said: “We will look into possible next steps, which may include the option of infringement proceedings”.

Now that seems both pretty unlikely and pointless. It's also a provocation the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will want to avoid. But the threat will help Von der Leyen from allegations she is being soft or favourable towards Germany.

So what will this quote "extraordinary judgement", actually change?

Well, in the short term, not very much. For now, the ECB has no need to stop any of its bond-buying, but will it heed the German court’s demands to produce a “proportionality” assessment on the impact of quantitative easing within three months? And if it does produce one, who judges it as meeting the required criteria? Essentially, the ECJ might well get involved again.

In many ways, the German court was reflecting a sense of national public opinion - the deep frustration that they are unjustly underwriting the debts of other countries.

It also got to the intrinsic problem at the heart of the EU. For years the ECB has provided cover for governments that have failed to deal with the fiscal implications of monetary union. This a sign that those same eurozone governments might have to get their act together.

But there are wider implications too. The ECJ enforces the rules, regulations and laws of the European Union, of the single market. And that’s led some EU politicians and some German politicians to worry. The leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, has said: “The supremacy of EU law is at stake, which, for example, keeps the single market together and gives investors the confidence to invest in all corners of Europe. Politicians celebrating this ruling should be careful what they wish for.”

The implications could be far-reaching. It seems also certain that this will embolden both the Polish and Hungarian governments to stand up to the ECJ. Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, told the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the ruling of the court was “one of the most important” in the history of the EU and established that “the ECJ does not have unlimited powers”.

And you can bet your bottom dollar, that’s a line you’ll increasingly hear and a line governments might increasingly take in the coming months.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.