A European watchdog in Paris is going to snatch regulatory control of Libor from the British — or so the European Commission is proposing. It is the stuff of nightmares for the UK Treasury. The political land-grab is the most striking element of a broader shake-up to restore faith in the largely unregulated and, in some cases, shockingly amateur business of compiling benchmarks for everything from heating oil and coal to mortgage rates.

What is the Commission up to? The crux of the draft proposal, which we obtained and wrote about in today’s paper, is ending self-regulation for thousands of indices. All benchmarks must be authorised by a regulator, but there is a sliding scale of regulatory intrusiveness. In the naughty corner are Libor and Euribor, inter-bank lending benchmarks deemed important enough to require direct supervision by the European Securities and Markets Authority, an EU watchdog in Paris. Brussels argues the users, contributors and fallout from problems are EU-wide, so therefore deserve EU oversight.

Is this a bit heavily handed? The stakes are high. The benchmark industry generates around €2bn in revenue but the Commission estimates the size of related markets approach €1,000,000bn. Given many benchmarks have never been touched by law, there is a risk that the voluntary contributors may simply decide the legal risks aren’t worth it. When it comes to Euribor and Libor, the Commission’s answer is to give Esma powers to compel banks to submit transaction data or complete questionnaires on prices or bids. But contributions to the less important benchmarks won’t be mandatory.

Hadn’t these benchmarks already been reformed? Global regulators have launched a big clean up in the wake of the Libor scandal. While its rules to tighten governance go further than expected, the Commission vision, especially when it comes to methodologies, is largely aligned with the guidance from Iosco, the umbrella group of financial regulators. So for instance, Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner in charge of the proposal, stops short of requiring benchmarks to be based purely on transactions and allows a hybrid methodology where necessary, which uses survey results to estimate prices. The UK, of course, also launched its own big Libor reform project led by Martin Wheatley, the UK financial regulator. The Commission sides with most of his substantial findings but decides it should all be overseen from Esma in Paris rather than London.

Could they have done more to annoy London? Probably not, at least in terms of the governance. The Treasury will see this as another Brussels masterplan to centralise power and will probably rue the decision not to sue when Esma was made regulator for credit rating agencies (they almost did to show this went beyond the EU treaties). The real sting though will be the fact that it comes so soon after the UK’s own clean-up. What does it say about the Commission’s faith in the proud UK regulators? On top of that, the Commission opted for the European financial watchdog in Paris to do the job, rather than the European Banking Authority in London, which was at least politically a bit more palatable. For now though the official response from London is relaxed; they are confident of their arguments, have shown they are able to reform Libor, know this isn’t a London problem and not too worried about the power all going to Paris.

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After months of deliberation and some not-so-private sparring with Berlin, the European Commission has pretty much anointed who it wants to be the all-powerful bank bailout and clean-up authority for Europe’s banking union: the European Commission.

This (somewhat predictable) conclusion to its internal policymaking journey is outlined in a paper, seen by the Financial Times, which was distributed to commissioners ahead of their weekly college debate on Wednesday.

There is no sign of Brussels bowing to pressure from Berlin. At the heart of the Commission’s proposed system is a powerful central authority, which has access to a single bailout fund and the clout to shut down a bank even against the wishes of its home state’s government. Brussels wants it operating by 2015.

What about those German concerns that this would breach the EU treaties? Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner responsible for financial issues, concedes in the paper that “only an EU institution” has the legal authority to take important decisions with European effect. Given there is no legal basis to give the European Central Bank this role, the Commission concludes that the only option is to anoint itself as the top resolution authority. Read more

Google’s three year tussle with Brussels over its search business is almost over. Our report today outlines the substance of its pre-charge settlement with the European Commission. Once formally adopted, it will allow Google to avoid a fine, any admission of guilt and a lengthy legal battle. But the price is accepting legally binding restrictions on how it can present its search results. Google has never yielded ground to a regulator on its prized core business before.

Given the space confines, we didn’t lay out all the details of the pact in the news piece. Some of it, as will become clear, is highly technical and not ideal weekend reading. For specialists we thought it would be useful to run through the full settlement taking each of the Commissions four concerns in turn:


The concern: The Commission investigators provisionally concluded that Google was potentially diverting traffic to its own specialist, or vertical search services — like Google’s finance, news, shopping and weather sites — potentially to the detriment of consumers. Brussels alleged it 1) did not to inform users clearly when it was favouring its own in-houses services and 2) did not give proper visibility to rival search engines that may provide more relevant results.

The solution: As a principle Google promises to ensure its own in-house services are clearly labelled and demarcated from the general search results. Users should be “clearly aware” they are Google in-house services, not natural search results. Read more

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

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

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

Politicians the world over have huffed and puffed about excessive pay at banks since 2008. While remuneration curbs were put in place, nothing fundamentally challenged bank operations, or their ultimate flexibility to reward staff. The European Parliament has bucked that trend with the mother of all bonus clampdowns. Here are five key questions on the cap: how it works, how you can avoid it, whether it will really pass and what it means for Britain and the City.

1. How is the cap calculated and applied? Read more

The EU clampdown on bankers’ bonuses is nigh. The final talks (or so diplomats hope) have begun and the room is booked until midnight. The frantic politicking earlier today certainly indicates the deal is close. This blog includes some of the latest political intelligence and a few tentative predictions. But be warned: the Brussels blog would not wager its bonus on the outcome.

1) Britain is looking isolated. It is a complex picture, but the UK is running short of allies, especially on the terms of the cap on variable-fixed pay. Most member states are happy to compromise with the European parliament, which is leading the bonus charge. Berlin is showing no appetite for running to London’s rescue. Even Sweden, the UK’s main friend on financial issues, was relatively silent at a meeting yesterday. The Netherlands said it could even accept a tougher crackdown. Ireland want a deal this evening. Read more

Should bankers breathe a sigh of relief over the deadlock in EU talks last night on introducing a bonus cap?

The British are certainly happy to have a bit more time to achieve the improbable and turn opinion in Brussels against strict limits on bonuses that are double or triple fixed pay.

At the same time, the omens from parliament are looking no better for the City’s finest. Just look at the tone of this statement the MEPs spearheading the talks put out today:

We are ready to give the Council one more week for internal discussions. If – after ten months of negotiations – a viable compromise cannot be found on 27 February, we do not see any other possibility than to ask the plenary of the European Parliament to vote on its position.

The threat of a vote is mainly symbolic. But there is no sign of backing down. Indeed parliament is upping the ante. They are pressuring the EU member states — who are represented by the Irish presidency — to override the hold-outs to a deal. It is, in other words, a challenge to force the Brits into line or outvote them within the week. High stakes. Read more

Now here is an striking quirk in European Commission recruitment: an institution dominated by men from old member states has taken a shine to women from new ones.

For all its preaching about gender equality, the Commission is conspicuously top heavy with men, particularly when it comes to policymaking jobs (so-called administrators). According to the latest Commission stats, women are outnumbered 45 per cent to 55 per cent; three out of four senior managers are men.

The situation is worse if you look at staff by nationality, especially for longstanding EU members. A meagre 23 per cent of Dutch Commission officials are female, 26 per cent of Belgians, 29 per cent of Brits and 31 per cent of Germans. In the top three civil servant ranks of the Commission, the Dutch ratio of men to women is an extraordinary 31:1.

No doubt the Commission want to see a better gender mix. But it seems the effort to improve the situation is generating some imbalances of its own. Read more

David Cameron is now the only leader in Europe openly advocating the revision of EU treaties by a set deadline. He asserts that this will happen by 2017 because the eurozone will have to make “massive changes” to save the single currency.

But what if that is not the case? What if Britain is the main reason for a treaty revision? How would Cameron trigger a renegotiation?

The answer lies in Article 48 — to spare you from reading the text, here’s a summary of the hurdles it places before any advocate of treaty change: Read more

Predicting what Germany will do in a negotiation is fast becoming the Brussels equivalent of soothsaying. Tuesday’s tetchy banking union talks set off yet another diplomatic stampede to consult the ouija boards, throwing canes and tarot cards in order to find out what Berlin really wants.

Were the strident objections of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, just negotiating tactics? A manifestation of German domestic politics? Or are they red lines that will require the reforms to create a single banking supervisor to be totally recast or significantly delayed? We’ve consulted the FT Brussels Blog Oracle (and a few diplomats) to draw up these two scenarios.

The Germans are digging in: no deal this year

There was genuine shock at Schäuble’s intervention. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of finance ministers, four EU ambassadors predicted to us that a deal — or partial agreement — was at hand. That was until Schäuble spoke. He opened with a dispute that officials thought was close to being resolved: whether small banks fall under the ECB’s supervision responsibilities. Don’t think this will pass the German parliament, he warned.

More worrying for some was his next point. Read more

Jonathan Faull, EU Commission's director general for internal market and services

Today’s instalment of the FT series on banking union turned to Britain and its troubled relations with the EU on financial services. We quoted Jonathan Faull in that piece, who runs the European Commission department overseeing the banking union plans.

He is British to boot and as close as it comes to a Brussels celebrity, so we thought it would be worth publishing our entire Q&A since he has some strong views about Britain’s role in the EU. Note the questions were partly intended to provoke; Faull characteristically kept his cool.

1. Are the views of Christian Noyer, the French central bank governor, compatible with the single market? Would the Commission stop the eurozone forcing most euro business to be within the euro area?

The EU’s financial services policy and legislation are for the whole single market, except for specific measures for the banking union being developed for the eurozone and volunteers among other EU countries. No banking union measures will discriminate against non-participating member states. The EU treaties are binding on all members and do not allow discrimination on grounds of location of business within the EU. What happens “naturally” as markets develop is another story. London has to compete!

2. Are there any genuine UK safeguards against the power of the banking union that would not fragment the single market? What are the dangers if the UK is not realistic in what it asks for? Read more

This issue has always been a potential dealbreaker: how will Germany’s politically powerful network of small public banks — or Sparkassen — sit under the bailiwick of a single bank supervisor? Until now we’ve mainly seen diplomatic shadow-boxing on the matter. But that fight is beginning in earnest.

As is the custom in Brussels, some ambiguous and unclear summit conclusions are helping spur things along. Chancellor Angela Merkel last week hailed a one particular sentence as a breakthrough for Germany: that the European Central Bank would “be able, in a differentiated way, to carry out direct supervision” over eurozone banks.

To her, that vague language was recognition that the Sparkassen would be treated differently — the ECB would concentrate on big banks and those that are facing troubles, and leave the rest to national authorities. Read more

Tomorrow will mark another milestone in the long meandering path towards a international financial transaction tax, otherwise known as the Tobin tax.

What exactly will happen? Well the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, will approve a proposal that paves the way for an avande-garde of member states to agree their own Tobin regime. In EU jargon, it’s a proposal authorising “enhanced cooperation”.

Ironically the step forward will come in the shape of a legal admission of defeat, a formal acceptance that there is at present no consensus for a pan-EU levy, let alone enough for a global one.

It is largely a formality. But it means the 11 EU countries that want the levy will be one procedure closer to setting up their own Tobin tax. Such breakaway groups are considered a last resort under EU rules, so any enhanced cooperation must clear various legal hurdles, including proof that a pan-EU deal is impossible for now. Read more

Legal opinions from the top lawyer to EU ministers are not intended for mass circulation. They are usually virtually unquotable, often studiously ambiguous and always highly political. But the Council legal service’s take on the European Commission plan for a single bank supervisor is a classic.

The headline is that the Commission’s supervision blueprint — as announced in September — is illegal in key parts. More important, though, is the detail of the argument and the challenges it poses to finding a diplomatic solution before the end of the year.

Before diving into the argument and quoting key sections, it is worth sumarising and explaining some of the implications. Read more

Is it possible to have one supervisor for eurozone banks, while keeping 17 different paymasters for when things go wrong?

It is the big potential problem of phasing in a banking union – while prudential responsibility is centralized under one supervisor, the means to pay for bank failure isn’t. One cynical diplomat likened it to “telling all cars to suddenly change sides and drive on the left of the road – but leaving the lorries to drive on the right.”

Just think through what would happen in the case of a failed financial institution once the European Central Bank takes over supervision.

Under the Brussels banking union plan, the ECB will have the power to shut down the lender by removing its license to operate. But in practice it would require the authorisation of the bank national authority. As we know, some banks perform vital functions for the economy and are too big to fail. For the ECB to pull the plug, someone would have to be available to pay for winding it up or bailing it out. Read more

Planning for a European banking union is racing ahead, in spite of the considerable political obstacles. The vision is for two, five or even ten years in the future. But be in no doubt: the institutional turf war is already afoot.

It was on display today in the pages of the international press. Speaking to the FT Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, laid out his vision of a banking union built on the foundations of existing EU institutions.

At the same time Christian Noyer, the governor of the Bank of France, made his pitch in the Wall Street Journal for eurozone central banks to provide “the backbone of the financial union”.

The clashing views highlight the great unanswered question of the banking union: if power over banks is centralised, who will be given control? Cui bono? These three scenarios lay down the broad templates for a union, and the institutions that would stand to win and lose depending on the outcome.

1. An EU banking union

Broadly as outlined by Barroso. A single supervisor, resolution regime and deposit guarantee fund serving all 27 member states. Should the UK refuse to take part — which it will — arrangements would be found to enable the other members to go forward. This union would cover countries outside and inside the single currency club, but remain within an EU framework.

Treaty change would not be necessary, at least according to the commission. Read more

Some issues to bear in mind when considering whether a European banking union is a realistic possibility. The difficulties highlighted are not impossible to overcome. But it would be a wrench.

1. Germans don’t like strong EU supervision of their banks. Berlin is fond of federal EU solutions. But it is even more keen on running its own banks. The political links — especially between the state and regional savings banks — are particularly strong in Germany. To date Berlin has proved one of the biggest opponents of giving serious clout to existing pan-EU regulators.

2. Germans really don’t like strong EU supervision of their banks. There is again some wishful thinking about Berlin shifting position. Angela Merkel did say she supported EU supervision. But there were important caveats. She referred to supervision of “systemically important banks” — which is likely to exclude the smaller Sparkassen banks and the 8 Landesbanks. To some analysts, this represents a giant loophole. She also did not explain what kind of supervision. Berlin may only support tweaks to the current system.

3. Germans don’t like underwriting foreign bank deposits. Another pillar of a banking union is common deposit insurance. To Berlin this proposal represents another ingenious scheme to pick the pocket of German taxpayers. A weaker proposal to force national deposit guarantee schemes to lend to each other in emergencies has been stuck for two years in the Brussels legislative pipeline. Most countries opposed it. German ministers say it could be considered, once there is a fiscal union across the eurozone. So don’t wait around.

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