Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dijsselbloem, centre, at a press conference Monday announcing the €10bn Cyprus bailout.

The joint FT-Reuters interview with Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem after the all-night talks to secure Cyprus’ €10bn bailout has caused a lot of discussion and debate. Dijsselbloem issued a statement after we published saying Cyprus is “a specific case with exceptional challenges” and that “no models or templates” will be used in the future.

To clarify what Dijsselbloem said, we’ve decided to post a transcript of the portion of the interview dealing with how the eurozone might deal with bank failures in the future in light of the Cyprus example.

The interview we conducted alongside Brussels bureau chief Luke Baker of Reuters lasted about 45 minutes, and the portion on bank resolution lasted for about 10 of those minutes. The interview started out with some Cyprus-specific questions – like how capital controls might work, whether Dijsselbloem had learned any lessons form the Cyprus experience – and then shifted to a discussion about whether north-south relations were hampering EU decision making.

That’s when Baker asked the first question about whether Cyprus set a precedent for future bank rescues:

Q: To what extent does the decision taken last night end up setting a template for bank resolution going forward?

A: What we should try to do and what we’ve done last night is what I call “pushing back the risks”. In times of crisis when a risk certainly turns up in a banking sector or an economy, you really have very little choice: you try to take that risk away, and you take it on the public debt. You say, “Okay, we’ll deal with it, give it to us.”

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The EU's Rehn, left, with Cypriot finance minister Sarris at the outset of Friday night's meeting

With the eurozone’s €10bn Cyprus bailout now laid waste by the country’s parliament, the recriminations are likely to begin almost immediately. In fact, they started even before the vote was held — almost as soon as it was announced early Saturday morning that the programme included a 6.75 per cent levy on bank accounts under €100,000.

Since then, almost all officials involved in the talks have said it wasn’t their decision to seize deposits from small savers.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, was the first out of the gate, telling public broadcaster ARD on Sunday that it wasn’t his idea. “We would obviously have respected the deposit guarantee for accounts up to €100,000,” Schäuble said. “But those who did not want a bail-in were the Cypriot government, also the European Commission and the ECB, they decided on this solution and they now must explain this to the Cypriot people.”

That statement sparked anger over at the ECB, which denied any involvement in levying smaller depositors. “I want to emphasise that it wasn’t the ECB that pushed for this special structure of the contribution which has now been chosen. It was the result of negotiations in Brussels,” Jörg Asmussen, the ECB executive board member who handled the central bank’s negotiations Friday night, said Monday. “We provided technical help with the calculations, as always, but we didn’t insist on this special structure.

This morning, Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, added his name to the list, saying he had been in favour of exempting smaller depositors “from the beginning”.

So where does the truth lie? We pieced together the events of Friday night and Saturday morning for Monday’s dead tree edition of the FT, but it appears more forensics might be needed to get this all straight. Having talked to multiple participants, here’s an even more detailed account. Read more

Reding, far left, and Orbán, second from right, during a 2011 Commission meeting in Budapest.

For Viviane Reding, it appears that any opportunity to step into a hornet’s nest is a good one. This time around, the media-savvy EU justice commissioner has seriously upset the Hungarian government after she questioned the independence of the judiciary in the EU member state.

In an interview in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Reding said the recent moves by the government of prime minister Victor Orbán to amend the Hungarian constitution in ways Brussels finds questionable made it understandable that Ireland had refused to extradite an Irish citizen convicted of killing two Hungarian children in a 2000 car accident.

Budapest didn’t appreciate Reding’s remarks, prompting a tart letter from Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s deputy prime minister in charge of justice affairs, which called her assertions “outrageous and absolutely unacceptable” and requesting she “kindly refrain from making public statements that lack sufficient grounds as well as general benevolence”.

Both Reding’s remarks and the full text of Navracsics’ letter after the jump… Read more

International lenders agreed to a €10bn bailout of Cyprus early Saturday morning after 10 hours of fraught negotiations, which included convincing Nicosia to seize €5.8bn from Cypriot bank deposits to help pay for the rescue, a first for any eurozone bailout.

The cash from Cypriot account holders will come in the form of a one-time 9.9 per cent levy on all deposits over €100,000 that will be slashed from their savings before banks reopen Tuesday, a day after a Cypriot holiday. An additional 6.75 levy will be imposed on deposits below that level.

Cypriot finance minister Michalis Sarris said his government had already moved to ensure deposit holders could not make large withdrawals electronically before Tuesday’s open; Jörg Asmussen, a member of the European Central Bank executive board, said a portion of deposits equivalent to the levies would likely be frozen immediately.

“I am not happy with this outcome in the sense that I wish I was not the minister that had to do this,” Mr Sarris said. “But I feel that the responsible course of action of a minister that takes an oath to protect the general welfare of the people and the stability of the system did not leave us with any [other] options.” Read more

Brussels bloggers Peter Spiegel and Josh Chaffin sum up two days of summitry in Brussels in which EU leaders grappled with Europe’s ongoing economic malaise and its arms embargo in Syria.

Monti, right, and Hollande, centre, with Belgium's Elio Di Rupo during Day 1 of the summit

For all the pre-summit posturing over the eurozone’s increasingly controversial austerity-led crisis response, participants said the EU summit’s first-day session on Europe’s economy was a staid affair with almost no real debate over whether EU policy was on the wrong track.

Indeed, the summit’s communiqué, issued after the summit broke at about 10:30pm, was almost identical to early drafts circulated late last week, even though some predicted a tense discussion over its advocacy for more targeted government spending.

Instead, a different theme appeared to emerge from several leaders in the wake of the thumping taken by Mario Monti, the outgoing Italian prime minister who implemented many of the Brussels-recommended reforms, in last month’s elections: EU policies are still correct, they’re just taking longer than expected to produce results.

“The period Mario Monti was prime minister was a very brief one,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, when asked of the lessons of the Italian vote. “Adopting reforms and the reforms taking effect, there’s a period of time for the benefits to be reaped.” Read more

Brussels bloggers Peter Spiegel and Joshua Chaffin discuss the unexpected Anglo-French push to lift the arms embargo for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.

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Hollande made clear his Syria position had hardened in his remarks heading into the summit

Will a debate on Syria hijack this seemingly uneventful EU summit? That is certainly the Anglo-French plan. Foreign ministers discussed it only a fortnight ago and there was no mention of Syria on today’s formal summit agenda. But Paris and London have nevertheless decided to bounce their counterparts into a potentially fraught review of the sanctions regime.

Although Britain has been pushing the line for weeks, it France’s president François Hollande who fired the opening shot at the summit, making clear his position had hardened. The message: it is time to change the sanctions regime to allow Paris and London to arm Syrian rebels fighting the the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Read more

Here is our main news story on FT.com

European leaders arrived in Brussels on Thursday for a summit where the intensifying debate over the austerity-led response to the eurozone crisis was moving to centre stage even though the gathering was not expected to change the EU’s economic policy course.

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Malta's Joseph Muscat arrives at the EU summit

Finally the Socialists are talking. Most of the early arrivals to the pre-summit gathering of the Party of European Socialist in Brussels said next to nothing. The only statement from Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was a striking neon apricot jacket. Joaquin Almunia, the EU competition commissioner and former Socialist candidate for Spanish prime minister, just gave a “buenos Dias” to the throng of journalists.

So it was with some relief that the newly elected Joseph Muscat of Malta broke the silence with a call for “common sense” on economic policy. On the day to his first summit, he said the magic balance was ensuring that “good economic governance” does not “stifle growth”. It is hardly controversial. But the tone and indeed the arrival of a newly elected socialist gives a small taste of the shifting political mood in parts of Europe. Read more

France’s François Hollande is expected to attend the pre-summit meeting with centre-left leaders

Nicos Anastadiades, Cyprus' president, talks to reporters in Brussels ahead of the EU summit.

One of the first leaders to arrive at the pre-summit gatherings of centre-right leaders was Nicos Anastadiades. In brief remarks to reporters in English, he said he hoped a Cypriot bailout deal could be reached at a meeting of finance ministers Friday night.

“We’re doing our best to reach a fair solution and agreement,” he said. “I hope everyone is going to be fair.” Read more

Finland’s prime minister Jyrki Katainen is standing firm. As he arrived in Brussels on Thursday the 41-year-old centre-right leader made it clear Europe had to maintain the tough austerity course if it wanted to survive.

In a thinly veiled jibe at Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who criticised the pro-austerity policies set by the European Commission’s economic chief and fellow Finn Olli Rehn, Katainen said that the debate around austerity versus growth might have academic value, but it has little value for common people.

“There are no shortcuts to creating new jobs and growth in a sustainable manner. Structural reforms might not bear fruit overnight, but are the best sustainable economic stimulus. Accumulating excessive debt is not,” said Katainen.

He added: “The future of our common currency can be guaranteed only if each member state keeps its fiscal house in order and takes the jointly agreed rules seriously.”

After the jump, you can find the Finnish leader’s full remarks: Read more

Germany's Angela Merkel at Thursday's cabinet meeting, where new budget targets were decided.

After last month’s tension-filled EU summit – an all-night affair to agree the EU’s €960bn seven-year budget – the two-day gathering beginning today is expected to pale by comparison to a considerable degree. “A bit boring is not a bad thing on this occasion,” said one senior diplomat involved in pre-summit negotiations.

Although Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán is expected to address the international press today following his government’s controversial passage of constitutional amendments which critics claim may violate the rule of law, the only real issue that could potentially generate much heat inside the gathering is the ongoing austerity versus growth debate that has been swirling since last month’s Italian elections.

There has already been some shadow boxing on the issue between France’s François Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel ahead of the summit – with Hollande making the case for France to get a one-year pass on its EU deficit targets, while Merkel conspicuously announcing her own intention to get to a balanced budget a year earlier than required. Read more

Someone may well have been drinking absinthe when they decided it would be a good idea to pack up an entire parliament once a month and shuttle its members and their assorted aides and documents to a second home 400 kilometers away.

On Wednesday, members of the European parliament, meeting in their Strasbourg quarters, will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with absinthe, the spirit renowned for its green tint and supposedly psychedelic properties. Specifically, they will be voting to determine just what absinthe is.

Their decision could escalate a brewing fight between northern and southern European makers of the spirit, which gained fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a favoured drink for bohemians and artists including Rimbaud, Degas, Hemingway and Toulouse-LautrecRead more

Rehn's remarks in London last month appear to be the crux of the dispute with Krugman.

Just when you thought the war of words between Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and European Commission economic chief Olli Rehn had died down, the normally level-headed Finn has hit back at the Princeton academic in an interview with his home country’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.

In the interview, Rehn in essence accuses Krugman of lying, insisting the economist criticised him for things he never actually said. “Krugman put words in my mouth that would be termed in the Finnish parliament a ‘modified truth’,” Rehn said in the interview. The newspaper helpfully notes that “modified truth” is the Finnish parliament’s polite terminology for lying.

Rehn also takes a little dig at Krugman’s use of Monty Python to defend himself. After a deluge of attacks from European Commission officials last week, Krugman noted he never made personal attacks on Rehn – only on his policies – writing: “I never asserted that Mr Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries.”

To the uninitiated, the line is from a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a French soldier played by John Cleese taunts King Arthur, played by the late Graham Chapman, with those very words.

“We should perhaps be grateful to Mr Krugman for his generosity in promising at least not to compare my recently-deceased mother to a hamster,” Rehn deadpanned in the interview. Read more

Rehn during last month's presentation of the Commission's winter economic forecasts.

Following yesterday’s barrage from the European Commission, Princeton economist Paul Krugman today ratcheted up his criticism of the way policy is made in Brussels, arguing that the attacks demonstrate EU officials are more “focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists” than on getting economic policy right.

Krugman’s latest fusillade, titled “Of Cockroaches and Commissioners”, notes that despite the occasionally personal nature of the attacks against him from the Berlaymont, he never made a personal attack on Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief:

What you would never grasp from those outraged tweets is that all my criticisms have been substantive. I never asserted that Mr. Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries; I pointed out that he has been promising good results from austerity for years, without changing his rhetoric a bit despite ever-rising unemployment, and that his response to studies suggesting larger adverse effects from austerity than he and his colleagues had allowed for was to complain that such studies undermine confidence.

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Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, during a visit to Brussels in 2009.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has in recent weeks emerged as something of a bête noir for EU economic chief Olli Rehn, singling out the understated Finn as the symbol of the austerity-led eurozone crisis response that Krugman blames for exacerbating Europe’s economic recession.

Last week, after “browsing through the collected speeches of Olli Rehn”, who he declares “the face of denialism when it comes to the effects of austerity”, he criticised the European Commission vice president for arguing that budgetary tightening is the reason for the recent eurozone market calm, when Krugman believes it was more European Central Bank action.

That followed a particularly nasty attack a few days earlier at what Krugman labelled a “Rehn of Terror”, saying that Rehn’s repeated predictions that economic growth was returning was misleading – and taking Rehn to task for a letter to EU finance ministers in which he said the recent academic debate over austerity and growth “has not been helpful”. Read more

It is all about to start. EU finance ministers will for the first time debate bankers’ bonuses. Brussels may say it loves democracy, but the meeting is fixed so the most contentious discussion is off-camera, in secret. George Osborne, UK chancellor, will gingerly defend his position against the planned bonus cap in the public debate afterwards, but by then the outcome of the negotiation will be clear. Think of it more like a post-match interview. This is a short guide to what to expect:

Will Osborne be able to overturn the bonus cap? Without wanting to ruin the suspense, the answer is no. The main terms of the political deal — a 1:1 bonus-to-salary ratio, which can raise to 2:1 with a shareholder vote — is here to stay. The European parliament is wedded to it. And apart from Britain, every other country is willing to compromise. Read more

Ireland’s recent history is a story of hopes dashed. Hope is now being stoked again, not least by those with the most interest in being positive: the Irish government and European lenders.

For Europe, Ireland is the poster child for austerity and must, just must, be recovering. Some positive jobs figures, showing the first growth in employment since 2008 (on which more later) have prompted what passes for elation in the depression-hit island.

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