Britain’s €2.1bn EU budget surcharge is a subject of mystifying, mind-bending complexity. Not even the people who are supposed to understand seem to understand. After days trying to solve the budget puzzle, the Brussels Blog is going to attempt to explain the numbers. Right or wrong, it should at least help to confuse matters further.
First the claims. Last week, George Osborne boldly said he halved the UK bill and achieved a “real win for British taxpayers”. EU officials say the British payments are rescheduled but benefit from no additional discount.
The truth, as we understand it, is even more bewildering:
– Britain is down to make a gross surcharge payment well in excess of €2.1bn, but at a different time than originally demanded.
– Britain will receive most of the money back by the end of 2015, but it doesn’t know precisely when, and it will only be thanks to two automatic rebates.
– Osborne requested a bigger discount and was denied, but he may get an EU Christmas present nonetheless.
Now for the details: Read more
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star troops are on side with a vengeance. The Lithuanian stunt pilot is pledging loyalty. The Calvinist isn’t taking calls from British Tories bearing gifts. Even given the faltering efforts to woo the Irish cannabis campaigner, things are looking up for Nigel Farage in the wacky world of the European parliament group building. Read more
David Cameron and his wife Samantha after voting in last week's EU parliament elections
David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party. Read more
It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.
Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.
For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous. Read more
German finance miniser Wolfgang Schäuble with Finland's Jutta Urpilainen at Monday's eurogroup
The German finance ministry is on the brink of an extraordinary achievement. Like many power shifts within the EU, it is happily hidden behind the most fiendish jargon. But if all goes to plan, Berlin is securing something rare and coveted in Brussels: the effective power to block future EU banking regulation.
Put another way, it is quietly resetting the ground rules of the single market in financial services without the need for treaty change or a referendum or a big speech. Take note David Cameron.
How has Berlin managed it? It is all concealed in the thicket of legal arguments over establishing Europe’s €55bn bank rescue fund via an intergovernmental agreement, rather than through the EU’s normal “community method”, where majority (or at least qualified majority) rules.
To translate: at German behest, the rules for pooling banking union rescue funds are laid out in a side-deal between governments, rather than under legislation agreed between EU member states and European parliament. Such intergovernmental pacts are allowed; remember the fiscal compact? But they are not supposed to change or impact the EU’s common rulebook, outlined in the EU treaties. Read more
Does David Cameron now need a reopening of the EU's treaties more than Angela Merkel does?
We have hardly heard a peep from Britain on the latest leg of Europe’s banking union. It is natural enough given the UK will be outside the proposed system for shuttering shaky banks, which is primarily for eurozone countries. But do not imagine it is unimportant for London. Strictly in terms of David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate Britain’s place in the EU, there has perhaps been no more worrying a development in Brussels all year.
Why? Cameron’s renegotiation strategy is partly based on this assumption: the eurozone will need a banking union to survive, and a fully-fledged banking union will need a re-write of EU treaties before 2017. That necessity opens the door for Cameron to press demands to repatriate powers.
The trouble is that this week’s banking union negotiation is showing that Germany and the eurozone will go to great lengths to avoid giving Cameron the leverage he craves. In one senior EU official’s words: “Nobody wants to give the keys to the UK”. Read more
ECB chief Mario Draghi, left, with eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem at last night's meeting
Whenever it comes to eurozone backstops, it usually pays to be beware of fine print and Germans bearing gifts.
Eurozone finance ministers reached a tentative agreement in the early hours of this morning that is significant in this sense: it paves the way for a final deal on a common resolution system for the banking union.
In terms of substance, the big breakthrough is a commitment to establish a common backstop — by 2025 at the latest — that will provide taxpayer support to the bank resolution system, should its resources be overwhelmed in a crisis.
Germany was staunchly opposed so it represents an important concession to Italy, France and the European Commission. What it does not do, however, is detail what form that backstop should take — that is left open. And they have a decade to fight over what the commitment actually entails. Read more
Are the Dutch attempting to lead a mutiny on bank reform? It is hard to tell whether the objections are serious enough to unravel the deal last week on the EU rules for handling a bank crisis. But something mildly rebellious is certainly afoot. And it could end in another golden-gloves showdown between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, and his Swedish sparring partner Anders Borg.
At issue is the draft deal on the bank recovery and resolution directive (BRRD), which was agreed between negotiators for the European parliament and EU member states on Wednesday, brining to a close months of difficult talks. The reforms give all EU countries a rulebook at national level to handle a bank in trouble and, if necessary, bail-in creditors to help foot the bill.
The Dutch, however, are unimpressed. They think the draft agreement offers too much freedom to governments wanting bailout banks with public money, rather than impose losses on bondholders. And it looks like they have a significant number of allies. Read more
So this is it. Google’s revised offer to settle the European Commission probe into its search business has been described extensively in the press. But the actual text and screenshots of how new Google searches will look under the proposal were not published, much to the annoyance of the complainants asked for confidential feedback. One of the parties has decided to revolt and set the documents free. We’re publishing them here in full.
Before the legal text, a screenshot: this is what Google proposes its EU sites will look like for a restaurant search. Note the three “Almunia links” — what negotiators are calling the forced search results that display competitors’ offerings — that appear under the paid-for “sponsored” Google search results. Under the revised offer, they are spruced up with bigger fonts, icons and two lines of text.
And here is what a search for an iPod would look like. It’s important to note that the Almunia links (to rival price comparison sites Supaprice, Kelkoo and Shopzilla) are still paid for through an auction, but the minimum offer price has been reduced. More on the objections to that at the bottom of the post.
The three-year Brussels probe into Google’s search business seems to be meandering towards a thundering anticlimax. With every legal twist, revised settlement offer and procedural shuffle, the case is losing the zip that made it a cause célèbre in the antitrust world. The opposing camps, meanwhile, appear ever more entrenched and polarised. Nobody is satisfied.
For now Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition chief, is still ploughing towards a settlement, rather than issuing formal charges. But it has been a bumpy ride. The protracted process will have many more months or years to run, especially with legal appeals. There could still be surprises, even perhaps a charge-sheet, the so-called “statement of objections”. The anti-Google camp are far from surrendering. The details still matter.
The latest inch-forward came on Monday with Almunia seeking feedback on Google’s second settlement bid. The terms of the latest package will not be published, for various reasons that are hard fathom. Even so, all the complainants and most journalists covering the case now have a copy of the offer or have been talked through it. Below is a medley of insights on what is on the table and what to expect next: Read more
Backstops? A safety net for banks in difficulty? Why the fuss? We have one already! That is the rough conclusion from finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday.
To provide some context, the apple of discord is whether Europe should pool more public funds to stand behind its banking system. Looming on the horizon is a stress test of banks next year that is supposed to restore faith in the financial system. It may uncover horrors that can’t be covered by contributions from private investors. If a bailout is needed, the open question is whether the bank’s sovereign will be able to fund it by borrowing from the market or from eurozone bailout funds without rekindling the sovereign debt crisis.
So what is the plan? Well there is no sign of new money. For the more optimistic finance ministers the ultimate, ultimate backstop — only to be used in exceptional circumstances — is apparently a “direct recapitalisation” from the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s E500bn bailout fund.
The trouble is that there are a legion of hurdles to clear before using this instrument in practice — especially if it is to be used to cover any shortfall exposed next year. The rough rules on the use of the instrument were published in June. Many senior officials think it is so encumbered with conditions as to be almost pointless. If direct recap is the backstop, some finance ministers will be worriedly looking over their shoulder.
TEN OBSTACLES TO A DIRECT RECAPITALISATION
1. German veto: Any ESM decision to take a direct stake in a bank is subject to a German veto. Berlin is determined to ensure that even if this tool is theoretically “available”, it remains unused. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, even said on Tuesday that German law would need to be changed to use the direct recap instrument.
2. German veto: the Bundestag would have to vote through any direct recap. Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, the most likely coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel, is dead-set against direct recapitalisation of banks. It thinks the financial sector, not taxpayers, should foot the bill for bank failure. Read more
Will a bank resolution phoenix rise from the ashes of the latest banking union debate? True to form, EU finance ministers used their informal gathering in Vilnius last week to tear into Brussels’ blueprint to empower itself as the top executioner for Europe’s ailing banks, leaving the path ahead uncertain.
This is a rite of passage for banking union proposals: the hammering the Commission endured at a meeting in Cyprus discussing its previous initiative — making the ECB the eurozone’s top bank supervisor — was something to behold.
Nevertheless it looks like a significant re-write of the Commission plan is looming, especially if a deal is to be agreed by December. Here we list 9 compromises to placate the German-led hold-outs, in roughly descending order of likelihood. The vast majority will probably be necessary for a compromise to be reached.
1. Change the executioner
This is a bad day for Europe’s financial transaction tax. The legal adviser to EU finance ministers — the Council legal service — has concluded that one of the main provisions of the Brussels designed tax is discriminatory, overreaches national jurisdiction and infringes the EU treaties.
Is some lobbying in Brussels too heavy and contrived for its own good?
Two examples spring to mind from some of the most over-lobbied issues handled by the European Commission: card fees and the antitrust case against Google. Read more
Politics in Brussels can verge on the absurd. As a case in point, we bring you the bizarre tale of how Greek Stalinists seemingly helped rescue European fund managers from a bonus cap, then deployed a form of Brussels magic that lets you vote against something, then for it.
Before we start, it is worth mentioning that this blog is partly intended as a way to fully lay out the evidence and address accusations that the FT launched a “sycophantic attack” on the Greek Communist party. Read more
Bank investors beware. Dazzling political fireworks will be launched in Brussels today that may distract you from the reform that really matters, at least over the next few years.
All the attention will naturally be on a bold move to create a powerful authority to wind up eurozone banks — a great leap forward for banking union that puts Germany’s red-lines to the test. Read more
After two sets of late-night negotiations that stretched into early morning, EU finance ministers finally reached a deal Thursday on new bail-out rules for European banks. A quick primer:
Is the deal a big step towards a banking union? It is definitely progress. But this is no leap towards centralisation. The bank bailout blueprint was proposed even before a eurozone banking union was endorsed by EU leaders last year. It is more a political pre-condition for deeper financial integration. The reform frames the powers of EU national authorities in handling bank failures and applies to euro and non-euro countries.
The impetus primarily came from the global regulatory response to the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008. These reforms are supposed to answer the “too big to fail” question, readying the defences for the next crisis and introducing powers to make creditors shoulder the costs of bank collapse, rather than taxpayers. It just turned out the reforms were shaped in the middle of a European banking crisis, rather than in the wake of the US one.
EU financial services chief Michel Barnier takes questions on the bank bail-in debate Wednesday
Call it the Cinderella rule: complex bank reforms cannot be agreed in Brussels until after midnight. So it will be this evening as ministers reconvene to negotiate laws on how to shut down failing banks, a deal that eluded them in the early hours of Saturday morning. (Though it should be noted negotiators for the Irish government, holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, are telling interlocutors they hope to be at the pub before midnight.)
The talks don’t start in earnest until after 7pm but a compromise text is circulating. It is the opening shot from the Irish to break the impasse. Officials are more optimistic about a deal this time. Fellow Brussels Blogger Peter Spiegel has written extensively on the context of the negotiations already, so this blog offers a short summary of the main changes for those who have followed the talks:
Pity the Lithuanians. When assuming the EU rotating presidency next month they will inherit the mother of all regulatory backlogs, especially when it comes to the financial sector. It is an impossible and thankless task, a numbingly complex pile of half-negotiated, often paralysed and always contentious directives and regulations, which the European Commission is still adding to with some gusto.
There are going to be around 25 financial services files for the Lithuanians to shepherd through, either in negotiations between member states, or directly with the European parliament. The poor Lithuanian officials strong-armed to work the files will have to become instant experts. Most of the proposals will require countless long meetings with member state or parliamentary negotiators; some will need ministerial input and some sacrificial political blood.
The demands could dwarf the resources and time available. After March 2014, the parliament essentially shuts shop for European-wide elections, so the Lithuanian presidency, which runs through the end of this year, is pivotal. Some countries only have one or two financial services attachés covering the bulk of files. Getting MEPs together for talks is like herding cats. Getting them to agree is even harder, especially in this pre-election environment. A lot of the initiatives will not make it through; their fate is then in the hands of the next leaders of the EU’s parliament, commission and council. Read more