Ultra vires is a latin phrase meaning literally “beyond powers”. If an act requires legal authority and it is done with such authority, it is characterised in law as intra vires. If it is done without such authority, it is ultra vires. Acts that are intra vires may equivalently be termed “valid” and those that are ultra vires “invalid”.
The verdict of the German Constitutional Court (GCC) last friday february 7 to declare the European Central Bank’s (ECB) Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program Ultra Vires, that is, not compatible with the EU Lisbon Treaty and with the German Constitution, but at the same time avoiding taking any binding resolutions and sending the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has confused everybody.
In his editorial “The Euro after the Karlsruhe ruling” FT supports the GCC in its letting the ECJ decide on the process while at the same time criticizing that the argumentation by which the GCC considers the OMT Ultra Vires: “The judges in Karlsruhe argue that OMT goes against the ECB’s mandate since it amounts de facto to monetary financing of government debt – which is prohibited under article 123 of the European Treaty. This is also the position of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, which has consistently opposed OMT. But this interpretation is highly questionable, since the ECB would only buy bonds on the secondary market. The court also claims that the bond-buying scheme goes beyond the ECB’s remit, which is limited to monetary policy. But OMT was necessary to overcome the fragmentation of the Eurozone credit market, which made it impossible for the ECB’s monetary policy to work.”
What the FT editorial forgets to mention though, is that in reference to purchases in the secondary market not being explicitly forbidden by article 123 of the European Treaty, the GCC declared that “es liegt auf der Hand, dass dieses Verbot nicht durch funktional äquivalente Massnahmen umgangen werden darf”, that is, purchasing bonds in huge quantities on the secondary market would conceptually be equivalent to acquiring them in the primary market, which is illegal, as is commented in the FAZ article “Die Angst der Verfassungsrichter”.
According to FT’s Alphaville “the decision to refer the OMT to the ECJ shouldn’t cause a political storm in Germany: the political institutions that matter long ago made their peace with the OMT. But the confusion about what the OMT does — Gerhardt alone nails it there — hardly helps.”. They argue that the german parliament, the Bundestag, has already had opportunity to boycott the OMT, and that the fact that it has chosen not to, would give democratic legitimacy to the ECB’s plan.
Also in the FT’s piece “Germany’s Constitutional court and the bond-buying plan” argues for a partial victory for the ECB, since they expect “the ECJ to sing from the ECB’s hymn sheet”, but they also have caveats: “The ECB is not completely off the hook, however. Until the ECJ makes its decision, uncertainty about the legality of OMT will persist. Some of the leading plaintiffs who brought the case in Germany argued on Friday that the ECB would not dare to activate its bond-buying scheme so long as the ECJ was considering the case – an exercise that could take at least a year.”
Gunnar Beck a law professor at London University, is cited in the same article and blasted the GCC’s decision as “legally indefensible”, emphasizing that the constitutional court’s decision marks the first time it has handed a case to the European court: “Up to now the [constitutional] court had consistently maintained that it alone – and not the EU courts – had the final say on whether the EU institutions exceeded their competence. Because if this matter were left to the court of justice of the EU, Germany would lose any control over the transfer of sovereign rights to the EU under the EU Treaties.” and “Today’s decision therefore amounts to nothing less than a surrender of sovereignty by Germany’s highest court.”
We can find a good summary of the GCC’s resolution in “Ein Richterspruch mit Risiko” @ Zeit Online where the main points are clearly synthesized: 1) The OMT program would have “Verteilungseffekte” (distribution effects), in that it would favor bonds of some countries (supposedly the ones from the most indebted countries, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Ireland) over those of other members of the Eurozone, which would amount to state financing, something that the ECB is not allowed to do. 2) The OMT program should not have as objective the artificial modification of government bond rates of the different countries of the Eurozone, bond prices should not be manipulated (“Eingriffe in die Preisbildung am Markt”), but that is precisely what the OMT is supposed to do. 3) Finally, the GCC leaves an open door for a “decaf” OMT that would comply with conditions 1 and 2 already mentioned and, also, the size of the program would not be unlimited (“whatever it takes”) but with a definite and finite size beforehand.
So what can we conclude of it all?
- Although the GCC’s remit of the OMT case to the ECJ appears to be a victory for Draghi’s co-opted ECB, the fact stands that it will be more difficult for the ECB to implement its OMT program while its legality has already been declared null by a 6 to 2 vote at the GCC and there is a pending case relating to the same issue before the ECJ. Although everybody assumes that the ECJ will give a favorable ruling as to the legality of the OMT program, what if it did not? Does the ECB want to run the risk of having started a program whose legality has been denied by the GCC and on which the ECJ has yet to issue its ruling?
- At the very least the GCC has argued and conveyed the idea that the OMT is illegal, and that if the ECB finally decides to use it, it will be with “dirty hands”. Also, and it is not a negligible victory, the pressure on the ECB to avoid using the OMT before the ECJ has issued its verdict will be enormous.
- Opposition by german citizens to the OMT, and to the ECB policies in general will not disappear with this resolution. The idea that Mario Draghi’s ECB has been co-opted, will, if anything, increase, creating a moral hazard issue that the ECB will find increasingly difficult to ignore.
- The importance of the final outcome of this case goes well beyond the economic and financial consequences of the possible implementation of a “money printing” program by the ECB. Its main significance lies in the question of whether legality in Europe has any meaning anymore, whether to fulfill globalist (?) dreams international treaties and national constitutions can be superseded.
- Perhaps this resolution should be analyzed and judged in the context of what governments and parliaments have done since the global economic and financial crisis exploded in 2008. If something characterizes the economic and monetary policies in the West in the last 5 years, is, on one side, almost unlimited money creation by central banks, labeled differently depending on the country (QE, LTRO, pegging of the Swiss Franc to the Euro, the japanese “three arrows program” etc. etc.), and an almost biblical reluctance on the part of governments to rein in the financial sector that has had to be rescued, at tax payers’ cost, everywhere. Like Simon Johnson argued a few years ago in “The Quiet Coup”, the financial sector has co-opted the state. He was talking about the USA, but the same argumentation could be applied to most western countries. What some people call New World Order (NWO) or Neofeudalism, has advanced, not gone backwards, in this crisis. That being so, was it perhaps not too much to expect the GCC to swim alone against this NWO tide? By voting against the OMT 6-2, naming it illegal, and referring the case to the ECJ, they have perhaps shown as much courage as they’ve been able to summon and, in any case, much more than governments and parliaments.
The GCC could have done better, it could and it should have declared the OMT illegal without remitting the case to the ECJ, but in a world in which the NWO finds almost no opposition, it could also have done worse. In the end, we doubt Mario Draghi is happy with the GCC’s resolution and, inasmuch as he is unhappy with it, the GCC snatched a small victory from the jaws of defeat.