A lot of attention surrounding the EU sovereign debt crisis has ostensibly focused on the allocation of blame to Member-States individually, often leaving out the EU institutions themselves. Responsibility for the current financial situation does in large part reside with the more indebted EU states such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Ireland. However, there are additional causes that also deserve some of the attention.

The Treaty of the European Union (TEU) created the Eurozone and the European Central Bank (ECB). This final level of economic integration completed the three stage monetary and economic union that began in 1990. As the introduction of the Euro drew near, legitimate concerns were being raised by Member States regarding the economic stability of this new Eurozone. In response, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) was adopted in 1997. A specific resolution of the SGP, formally recognized as Council Regulation (EC) No 1467/97, implemented a targeted deficit reduction procedure for member-states that possessed excessive debt, imposing a deficit limit, an overall debt limit, and empowered the ECB to levy fines for non-compliance. However, the SGP has been inadequately enforced since its adoption. Such inadequate enforcement of the SGP may very well underlie the troubling economic situation the EU finds itself in today.

The most striking example of this questionable attitude toward the SGP came in November 2003, when the European Council (EC) chose not to implement recommendations of the European Commission (Commission) pursuant to the national budgets of two Member States. France and Germany’s national did not conform to SGP standards and the EC decided against enforcing SGP deficit reduction procedures previously agreed upon. This controversy eventually arrived at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The Commission raised the issue that the EC’s failure to enforce the SGP’s debt re-structutring mechanisms against the Member States of Germany and France. Although the ECJ did rule against the EC for its refusal to pursue the SGP’s enforcement mechanisms, the checks and balances between EU institutions have been called into question and the authoritativeness of the SGP has been seriously undermined.

For example, the ECJ stated that the EC “cannot break free from rules laid down by Article 104 TEC and those for which it set forth for itself in Regulation No. 1467/97(SGP)”. Article 104 of the Treaty of the European Community (TEC) codifies the discretion of EC to assess a Member-State’s debt [104(6)], make recommendations on remedying that debt [104(7)], and the procedures for non-compliance [104(9)]. However, the SGP subsequently stipulated additional procedures to be implemented against a Member State in the case of non-compliant debt structure. The ECJ opinion alludes to an interesting question regarding the scope of the relationship between Art 104 TEC and the SGP. Understandably, however, they remind the parties that such a question “had not been presented”.

As Professor Larry Eaker of the American University of Paris has explained, this ECJ decision has potentially created a troubling conflict between the broad discretion afforded the EC in matters of economic and monetary policy, as expressed in Art. 104 TEC, and the monetary restrictions that were envisaged in the SGP. It would seem that the subsequent addendum of the SGP to the TEC would resolve this conflict just as a matter of chronology, but things are often never that simple.

The ECJ’s decision prompted subsequent legislation by the European Commission that intended to correct issues raised in the 2004 Commission v. Council case. But the conflict between the EU institutions and Member States is certain to continue, given the lack of resolution concerning the scope of the SGP.