Monthly Archives: May 2012

As momentum builds towards finding a “roadmap” for commonly-backed eurozone bonds ahead of next month’s EU summit, where the topic is likely to be on the table, officials have begun focusing on interim steps before getting to full-blow mutualisation of debt, which Berlin has made clear it will not support.

Much of the attention thus far has gone to a “wise men” report put out by five German economists last year that would create a “debt redemption fund,” which would refinance debts from eurozone countries over 60 per cent of their gross domestic product. The fund would jointly guarantee the excess debt to help pay it off through cheaper borrowing costs.

But in recent weeks, people briefed on internal debates in Frankfurt and Brussels say another incremental idea has caught the interest of EU officialdom: instead of eurozone bonds, the currency bloc should start with eurozone bills, short-term debt backed by all 17 euro members. 

Italy's Mario Monti and Spain's Mariano Rajoy chat during a March EU summit in Brussels.

The leaked copy of the Italy “country-specific report” from the European Commission which we got a hold of before its official publication Wednesday contains lots of warnings about tax evasion and the black economy. But with Spain and Greece dominating headlines these days, one thing that stands out from reading the report is that Italy is not Spain or Greece.

Both Spain and Greece are struggling mightily to get their budget deficits under control, and some analysts argue they’re failing because of a “debt spiral” where their governments attempt to close shortfalls by instituting severe austerity measures – thus killing economic growth and causing bigger deficits.

The European Commission report (which we’re posting online here) shows how much better Italy’s situation is when it comes to its budgetary situation. Not only is Italy not dealing with huge deficits like Spain and Greece; last year it actually had a primary budget surplus – in other words, it took in more money than it spent, if you don’t count debt payments.

That’s a significant difference, and may be one of the main reasons Italy appears to be decoupling from Spain, as our friends and rivals over at Reuters noted in a Tweet this morning: the spread between Spanish and Italian 10-year bonds have shifted a pretty dramatic 250 basis points over the course of the year. 

Over at the socialist gathering held in a conference centre overlooking an ornate garden in the centre of Brussels, a gaggle of reporters – and a few bemused tourists – clustered around Jean-Marc Ayrault, the new French prime minister, as he arrived for the meeting.

Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters

Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters

 

Antonis Samaras. Getty Images

Antonis Samaras. Getty Images

Leaders have begun arriving at their party caucuses and one of the first to show up at the centre-right EPP gathering was Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy leader locked in a neck-and-neck fight to become Greece‘s next
prime minister. 

France's Hollande and Germany's Merkel at the Nato summit in Chicago earlier this week

Ahead of today’s informal EU summit in Brussels, senior officials have been repeatedly warning that no decisions will be taken. Indeed, no communiqué has even been circulated among national delegations, so the dinner is likely to wrap with only a press statement from Herman Van Rompuy, the evening’s host.

Even though Van Rompuy in his letter to leaders has emphasised the informal nature of the session, Europe’s two largest party groupings – the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists – will both hold pre-summit caucuses starting in the late afternoon.

In the past, the EPP gathering was the more significant affair, with almost every major EU leader (Van Rompuy, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Juncker) and leaders from the largest eurozone countries (France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) all regular attendees.

At one point, the PES became something of a caucus of the damned, with only Greece’s George Papandreou, Portugal’s José Socrates and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as centre-left leaders in attendance. Like so much in Europe these days, the French presidential elections have changed all that. 

People pass Bank of Greece in Athens last week

Jitters over whether Greece will be forced out of the euro have turned the focus of policymakers in recent days on whether Greece is on the precipice of a bank run.

It’s no mere academic exercise; a full-scale bank run would force the European Central Bank and eurozone lenders to either pump in more money – without a new government in place, and no assurances Athens would live up to the rescue terms – or pull the plug on Greece’s financial sector.

Since a banking sector without a central bank would essentially force Greece back to the barter system, there would be few options left then for Athens to begin printing its own currency again. Essentially, the drachma would return through the back door.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition, senior eurozone officials responsible for monitoring the currency area’s banking system said the rate of withdrawals thus far falls short of a panic. But the International Monetary Fund’s recent report on Greece makes it clear that a slow-motion bank run has been under way for more than two years, with close to 30 per cent of deposits being pulled out since the end of 2009. 

George Osborne, the UK chancellor, surrounded at the marathon Brussels negotiations on bank capital rules. The May 2 talks ended at 2am with Osborne outnumbered 26-1 by other EU finance ministers. A deal was finally done on Tuesday.

 

In our interview published today with Michel Barnier, the silver-haired Frenchman who oversees the EU’s financial system, he talks in great depth about the future of banking regulation and his relationship with François Hollande.

EU commissioner Michel Barnier

EU commissioner Michel Barnier

For Barnier, the election back home not only brought him a new French president to deal with, but also a mixed legacy for his political home, the centre-right UMP. The party’s standard-bearer Nicolas Sarkozy used the waning days of the campaign to openly court voters who had supported the far-right National Front through anti-EU rhetoric.

In addition to threatening to pull France out of the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone, Sarkozy regularly belittled the European Commission and urged “buy French” policies that violated the EU’s common market.

In our hour-long interview, Barnier insisted that such Europe-bashing was only the result of overheated politics ahead of a contentious vote. “I think you have to put to one side the electoral campaign,” he said, citing UMP party luminaries like François Fillon and Alain Juppé who have strong pro-European pedigrees.

Still, Barnier said he intends to actively insert himself in the post-Sarkozy debate about the UMP’s future – though he assiduously declined to say what role him himself might play in that new party. 

Francois Hollande rather enjoys issuing blood-curdling warnings to the City of London. During the campaign he declared his “real enemy” to be ”the world of finance” and post-election he is not toning down the rhetoric.

How ironic then that Hollande’s first major piece of EU financial regulation will see him largely siding with European banks (and yes, that includes the British ones) against calls from the UK and ECB for tougher rules.

Diplomacy in Brussels can be a funny business. Hard as it is to believe, in this negotiation the big beasts of City banking have been privately cheering on the French. Next week, when finance ministers meet to negotiate a deal, we’ll all be able to see if Hollande changes Paris’ tune. 

Welcome to our rolling coverage of the reaction to elections in France and Greece on a big day for Europe.

By Tom Burgis, John Aglionby and Esther Bintliff in London with contributions from FT correspondents around the world. All times are London time.

This post should update automatically every few minutes, although it might take longer on mobile devices.

12.44 Borzou Daragahi, the FT’s north Africa correspondent, reports on the response to the French election results in the Arab world:

Across a region undergoing tumultous change, many greeted the fall of Nicolas Sarkozy with glee, hopeful it would spell the end of French foreign policies considered too Atlantacist, pro-Israel and anti-immigrant.

Though many Libyans hailed Mr Sarkozy for his role in spearheading Nato’s help in toppling Col Muammer Gaddafi, others remember his administration’s cozy ties with deposed Tunisian leader Zein el Abidine ben Ali and Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.

Ties between Tunisia’s new government, dominated by a coalition of Islamists and leftists, and France have grown particularly strained. In an interview with the FT in January, Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi accused France of arrogantly giving Tunisia ‘lessons’ on economic and social policy despite its own problems.

Mustapha Ben Jaafar speaking on April 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages 

Mustapha Ben Jaafar on April 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

After Mr Sarkozy’s defeat, Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian parliament and leader of the left-leaning Ettakatol party, hailed François Hollande’s arrival as way to update bilateral relations.

“We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries,” he said in a statement. “With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity.”

12.22 The election results in Greece testify to widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s mainstream conservative and socialist parties. Voters have punished the political groups they see as jointly responsible for the economic crisis, with once marginal groups rapidly gaining ground.