Amending Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union - European Union Committee Contents


Amending Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union


Introduction

1.  The European Council recently proposed to amend the Treaties governing the European Union to establish a permanent crisis resolution mechanism for euro area Member States. The Government will be asking the two Houses of Parliament to enable them to agree to this amendment by tabling approval motions for debate in each chamber. This debate will take place in the House on 21 March.

2.  The Economic and Financial Affairs and International Trade Sub-Committee of the European Union Select Committee has scrutinised this proposal and lifted the scrutiny reserve on the proposed Treaty amendment.[1] This short report aims to inform the House of some of the circumstances surrounding this proposal, to explain the process by which the amendment will be made, and to give the Sub-Committee's assessment of the Government's stance. We make this report to inform the House for the debate on 21 March; we do not expect a Government response.

Background

3.  In response to the financial crisis in Greece, two emergency funds were established in May 2010 to provide loans for Member States experiencing financial difficulties. These were:

  • The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF)—a €440 billion intergovernmental fund established and financed by euro area Member States with voluntary contributions from Sweden and Poland. It was set up with a three-year lifespan and will expire in June 2013.
  • The European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM)—a €60bn facility created by a Council Regulation and guaranteed by the EU budget. The EFSM is reviewed every six months to determine whether circumstances still justify its existence.

4.  The EFSF is available only to Member States of the euro area. The UK does not contribute to this fund. The EFSM, by contrast, is available to all Member States of the EU. When a decision is reached to activate this mechanism, the Commission borrows money from the capital markets and lends it to the Member State receiving assistance. Since these loans are guaranteed by the EU Budget, all Member States share in the risk that they are not repaid.

5.  The EFSM was established under Article 122(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)[2] which provides for EU financial assistance to be granted to a Member State where the state "is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control". The EFSM was created in the light of "exceptional occurrences" in the international economic and financial environment, and doubts have been expressed (notably in Germany) about whether Article 122(2) provides a sound legal basis for this mechanism.

6.  We have previously corresponded with the Government on this issue,[3] and have questioned whether the use of this Article in this manner conflicts with the "no bail-out" provisions of Article 125.[4] The Government's view was that the EFSM provided loans; it did not "bail-out" countries by assuming responsibility for their debts. They argued, therefore, that Article 125 had not been breached. This view was supported by the majority of witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee for its current inquiry on the future of economic governance in the EU.[5]

A permanent crisis resolution mechanism

7.  In October 2010 the European Council agreed on "the need for Member States to establish a permanent crisis mechanism to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as a whole". This permanent mechanism would replace both the EFSM and the EFSF.[6] It asked the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, to undertake consultations on a limited Treaty change required to that effect.

8.  At its meeting on 16-17 December 2010 the European Council agreed that the Treaties should be amended to allow the establishment of a permanent mechanism, to be called the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which would come into existence on 1 January 2013.[7] It also agreed that Article 122(2) TFEU (see paragraph 5 above) would in future no longer be used for the purpose of safeguarding financial stability.

9.  The proposed amendment would add a paragraph to Article 136 TFEU, as follows:

"The Member States whose currency is the euro may establish a stability mechanism to be activated if indispensable to safeguard the stability of the euro area as a whole. The granting of any required financial assistance under the mechanism will be made subject to strict conditionality".[8]

10.  Article 136 is one of three articles of the TFEU in a chapter entitled "Provisions specific to Member States whose currency is the euro". The articles provide for action by the EU but specify that, when the Council of Ministers takes decisions, only those states in the euro area may vote.

Amending the Treaties—the process

11.  The draft European Council Decision setting out the Treaty change is based on Article 48(6) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) which provides for amendments to be made to Part III TFEU (which includes Article 136) by the "simplified revision procedure". This would be the first use of that procedure, under which:

  • a proposed amendment may be agreed by the European Council, without either an inter-governmental conference or a convention of national parliaments, governments, the European Parliament and the Commission;
  • the European Council must consult the European Parliament, the Commission and (because of the subject matter in this case) the European Central Bank (these consultations are currently under way); and
  • the amendment cannot come into force until it has been ratified by all the Member States in accordance with their national constitutions.

12.  In the UK, under the law as it currently stands, parliamentary approval must be obtained before the Government may vote for an amendment in the European Council under the simplified revision procedure (section 6 of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008). This involves a separate motion in each House, thus giving each House a veto. Following the adoption of the Treaty amendment in Council, it must then be ratified by each Member State in the usual way.

13.  Under the provisions of the European Union Bill, currently passing through the House of Commons, the Government would not need to obtain parliamentary approval before voting for a Treaty amendment in the European Council. However, the following requirements would apply following a Council Decision to amend a Treaty:

  • a Minister must lay before Parliament a statement whether, in his opinion, the amendment involves the kind of change which, under Clause 4 of the Bill, should attract a referendum because it would involve a transfer of competence or other powers to the EU; and
  • the Decision to amend the Treaty must be approved by Act of Parliament.

14.  While the European Union Bill provides for a referendum to be held in most cases where Treaty amendment is proposed, it is expected that no referendum would be required in relation to the amendment to Article 136 on the grounds that it does not fall within Clause 4. In that case, the Act approving the amendment must state that Clause 4 does not apply.

The Government's view

15.  The Government state in their Explanatory Memorandum[9] that, while financial problems within the euro area should be primarily resolved by euro area Member States, it is in the interests of all Member States to support a stable euro area.

16.  They note that the ESM will not apply to non-euro area Member States, and will not create any liability on the EU Budget or on Member States outside the euro.

17.  Finally, they refer to the Coalition Agreement which promised that there would be no Treaty change which transfers competence or powers from the UK to the EU during this Parliament. They emphasise that this amendment to the Treaty does not involve any increase of the EU's competences, adding that the Treaties specifically forbid the use of the simplified revision procedure if it would "increase the competences conferred on the Union in the Treaties", and that as the ESM will not apply to the UK it cannot involve a transfer of powers from the UK.

The Committee's assessment and conclusions

THE USE OF THE SIMPLIFIED REVISION PROCEDURE

18.  Article 48(6) TEU restricts the use of the simplified revision procedure to amendments to Part III of the TFEU which do not increase the competences of the EU. Article 136 TFEU is within Part III. Indeed, the amendment does not refer to the Union; it provides for action by the Member States in the euro area.

19.  By the same token, the amendment does not appear to us to fall within the classes of amendment which, under Clause 4 of the European Union Bill, would trigger a requirement for a referendum. Clause 4 applies (broadly speaking) where an amendment would add to EU competences or remove Treaty safeguards for Member States.

THE MECHANISM

20.  The new paragraph (see paragraph 9 above) to be added to Article 136 TFEU would provide a legal basis for the proposed permanent mechanism to be established for the euro area by its members. The mechanism itself would be set up by agreement among the euro area states, not by the EU. The wording of the new paragraph might be seen as granting a necessary permission to the euro area states to set up the new mechanism. However, it appears to us that the text is only intended to express a power for the states concerned without any suggestion that the EU Treaty would otherwise prevent the establishment of the mechanism. It is commonly assumed that the German government was anxious to have a clear Treaty basis for action in order to forestall any adverse judgment of the German Constitutional Court.[10]

21.  The second sentence of the new provision is not expressed in what, in English law, would be regarded as mandatory terms but the intention of the European Council is that the new mechanism will contain "strict conditionality" in return for assistance to a euro area state.

IMPACT ON THE UK

22.  The Explanatory Memorandum notes that the Government intend to participate in the work of designing the new mechanism, though the UK will not be part of it and will not, therefore, have any financial exposure in relation to the operation of the mechanism, either directly or through the EU budget.

23.  We agree with the Government's view that it is in the UK's interests to support a stable and prosperous euro area. The UK will not be part of the new permanent crisis resolution mechanism. We note, however, that participating Member States have decided that such a mechanism is necessary to safeguard the stability of the euro area.

24.  The proposed Treaty amendment will not transfer any powers from the UK to the EU, or result in any financial implications for the UK. We therefore support the Government's intention to vote in favour of this amendment in the European Council.


1   The scrutiny reserve was lifted on 1 February 2011 in a letter from Lord Roper, Chairman of the EU Select Committee, to David Lidington MP, Minister for Europe. This letter is printed in Appendix 3. Back

2   The EU is founded on two core Treaties: the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).  Back

3   Correspondence with Ministers May 2010-December 2010 (http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/eu-sub-com-a/CWM/CwMSubAMay-Oct10.pdf). Back

4   Article 125 states that "The Union shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State". It goes on to state that no Member State shall do so either. Back

5   The report from the European Union Select Committee, The Future of Economic Governance in the European Union, will be published in late March 2011. Back

6   European Council, 28-29 October 2010 Conclusions (EUCO 25/1/10). Back

7   European Council, 16-17 December 2010 Conclusions (EUCO 30/10). Back

8   European Council, 16-17 December 2010 Conclusions (EUCO 30/10), Annex 1. Back

9   Explanatory Memorandum EUCO 33/10 on a Draft European Council Decision amending Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union with regard to a stability mechanism for Member States whose currency is the euro, 10 January 2011. This document is printed in Appendix 2. Back

10   See, for example: Financial Times, An EU Treaty change is necessary but hazardous, Wolfgang Münchau, 31 October 2010; and, EuropeanVoice.com, Merkel garners support for Treaty change, Simon Taylor, 4 November 2010. Back


 
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