Banking union

Jim Brunsden

The increasing woes of Deutsche Bank demonstrate that Europe’s banking crisis is still not settled. But the troubles at Germany’s biggest lender have not deterred Brussels from pushing back forcefully against stringent new banking rules.

How things change. Back in October 2010 Michel Barnier, the then EU financial services commissioner pledged to be “vigilant” in making sure that nations around the world – especially the US – implemented international bank rules. Read more

Matteo Renzi is politically cornered. Troubled banks – or more precisely Monte dei Paschi di Siena - have left the Italian premier facing a problem with no good answers.

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No relent in European news overnight. One state of emergency was declared in Turkey – suspending rights and giving president Recep Tayyip Erdogan near unlimited power – while another was prolonged in France, where the government is facing a harder time asserting its authority. Britain’s Theresa May met Angela Merkel for the first time, easing Brexit pressure on the UK a touch and prompting a journalistic scramble to find more similarities between the two leaders (a love of hill walking has been uncovered). Italy is racing to find creative answers to its banking woes and Matteo Renzi’s political quandary – while Italy’s populists call for taxpayer bailouts. And another Italian, Mario Draghi, will be forced to wrestle with his policy demons in public as the European Central Bank holds its monthly meeting. Oh, and happy Belgian national day.

Erdogan’s rule

 

Three months of emergency powers The move was announced following back to back national security council and cabinet meetings. Erdogan said: “As the president and commander in chief elected by the people of this country, I will take forward the struggle to cleanse our armed forces of this virus…The aim of this action is to quickly and effectively eliminate the threat to democracy in our country, the rule of law, and the rights and freedom of our citizens.”

What does it enable? Not since the martial law of the early 1980s has Turkey been subject to such unchecked central power. The FT’s Mehul Srivastava explains that it allows Mr Erdogan’s cabinet to issue decrees that take immediate effect and are not subject to review by the constitutional court (two judges on that court are among the 2,750 removed in the purge against suspected supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who Mr Erdogan blames for instigating the coup). Read more

Jim Brunsden

As everyone who has played the famous video game knows, Super Mario is not always super. Temporarily able to boost his size and powers, he is nevertheless, for much of the time, just regular Mario.

What to make then of ECB president Mario Draghi? The eurozone crisis has seen the ECB repeatedly expand its operations in its bid to stimulate the euro area economy. As Mr Draghi has repeatedly said, these “extraordinary measures” were meant to provide a temporary breathing space for governments. Instead, politicians have proved all too willing to let the ECB permanently shoulder the load.

In a hearing before the European Parliament yesterday, Mr Draghi cut a frustrated figure as he set out the steps nations need to take to finish building their “incomplete” and “still fragile” monetary union, and to make their economies more competitive. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Nearly six months after knuckling down to work on the next stage of overhauling EU bank rules, finance ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Friday to acknowledge that they aren’t where they want to be.

Rather than being able to hail progress in the next steps of the euro area’s ambitious “Banking Union” reform programme, instead they have to tackle fundamental splits over how to take the project forward. If they can.

The divisions are laid bare in a package of documents prepared by the Netherlands, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and which is trying to chart a course for future negotiations before handing the reins over to Slovakia at the end of the month.

To pick through the splits, the FT Brussels blog has posted an annotated copy of the main Dutch document here (just click on the parts highlighted yellow:)

At the centre of the ruckus is the Commission’s proposal for the euro area to create a centralised system to guarantee bank depositors, known as the EDIS.

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Jim Brunsden

History is full of great projects left half finished – the Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, the Beach Boys’ Smile album, the last Tintin book … could the euro area’s banking union join them?

Forged at the height of the debt crisis as a way to restore trust in the financial sector, the banking union remains very much a work in progress, and it’s increasingly unclear whether its architects are all working off the same plans.

While the European Central Bank is firmly installed as the currency bloc’s banking supervisor (something examined in-depth in this new study by Bruegel,) and new rules on handling financial crises are on the statute books, discussions are becoming bogged down over the banking union’s third pillar – a centralized scheme for guaranteeing bank deposits. That plan, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin while strongly supported by the ECB and governments in southern Europe.

The row between national capitals over EDIS is only part of a larger, and extremely complex negotiation – one that is hampering efforts by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, to sign off his country’s EU’s presidency by getting a deal on a banking union workplan. The split is likely to be a topic of discussion among policymakers at today’s Brussels Economic ForumRead more

Jim Brunsden

In countless zombie movies there is the classic moment where a member of the dwindling band of survivors is cornered and desperately opens fire on the oncoming tide of walking dead. Despite firing off round after round, to the despair of our hero, the enemies keep approaching until the fateful click of his empty gun that tells him the game is up.

It’s a predicament not unlike that of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble as he fights a rearguard action to ward off Brussels plans for a common eurozone scheme to guarantee bank deposits.

The idea, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin on the grounds that it could force Germany to help cover the costs of bank failures elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is lauded in Southern Europe as a guarantee that capitals will be helped to cope with financial crises.

So far, Mr Schäuble has thrown all kinds of obstacles at the proposal, which was unveiled by the European Commission late last year. He has insisted on a tough programme to close loopholes in existing regulations which he says must be fulfilled before EDIS is even considered. He has also questioned the very legal foundations of the plan – saying parts of it have budgetary implications for nations that go beyond what is allowed under the EU treaties.

Despite all this, discussions on the text have rumbled on for months in the EU’s Council of Ministers.

Now, however, Germany is seeking to hit Brussels where it really hurts: with its own rules of procedure.

In a joint paper with Finland, obtained by the FT, Germany seeks to hoist the European Commission up by its institutional petard, accusing it of failing to respect “requirements under primary law and the Better Regulation principles” by not carrying out a full “impact assessment” before presenting the EDIS plan in November.

It’s the Brussels equivalent of trying to take down Al Capone for tax evasion. But hey, it worked.

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Jim Brunsden

Wolfgang Schäuble’s destiny is to be a man who keeps having to listen to people talking about things he doesn’t want to hear about.

Germany’s finance minister, together with his counterparts from around Europe, will gather in Amsterdam on Friday to discuss, among other things, the future of the Banking Union — the major policy push undertaken by the euro area over the last few years to centralIze how it oversees its banks.

But like a band with growing musical differences, ministers can’t agree on what the next steps of the project should be, with Mr Schäuble playing the role of the blues purist who wants the group to move away from grand concepts and get back to basics.

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Jim Brunsden

Meeting room in the Dutch maritime museum where finance ministers will gather on Friday

Coming to terms with painful truths can take a long time, and the EU’s struggle to acknowledge an original sin built into its banking regulations is a case in point.

It’s a problem that dates back decades, and that finance ministers are going to tentatively grapple with at an informal meeting in Amsterdam this week. It centres on the regulatory treatment of sovereign debt, and we’ve got our hands on the options paper prepared for ministers by the Dutch presidency and posted it here.

While the subject may sound arcane, it’s extremely politically charged. The latest ructions over how to treat bank holdings in government debt are fanning the already hot flames of discord between Rome and Berlin, with Brussels as ever squeezed uncomfortably in the middle.

So what’s the problem? The EU has highly detailed legislation covering different aspects of banks’ activities, in order to ensure that institutions have enough financial reserves to cope with the risks that they are taking with their investments.

The rules cover everything from mortgage lending to complex trading in derivatives, but they have one glaring loophole, namely that many of the normal requirements, such as capital rules and exposure limits, don’t apply to banks’ purchases of European governments’ own debt. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Tuesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Italian banks appear to be in trouble. Again. With €360bn in non-performing loans – by far the largest pile in the eurozone, and behind only Greece and Cyprus as a percentage of all outstanding loans – the market has been selling off Italy’s financial sector since the start of the year to where it’s now down about a third of its value since January. But their troubles have become acute again because of the struggles of one mid-sized bank, Banca Popolare di Vicenza, to raise the €1.8bn in capital the European Central Bank has demanded.

The share sale by Vicenza is being underwritten by UniCredit, Italy’s only systemically important bank, but last week UniCredit sought government assistance out of fear Vicenza’s shares wouldn’t be bought by nervous investors – and UniCredit itself would be left holding the bag. That, in turn, raised questions about UniCredit’s own balance sheet, where it already lags behind many of its peers in terms of financial health.

The Italian government isn’t in a place to help, however. First of all, it doesn’t have any money to throw at the problem; its national debt is already nearly 140 per cent of economic output, the highest in the eurozone outside of Greece, and there’s not a billion or two around to spare. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Rome did intervene, it would have to follow the EU’s new post-crisis banking rules, which require the government to force losses on private investors before any public money can be used to rescue a bank. Read more

This is Thursday’s edition of our new Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

One side-effect of “crisis Europe” has been a surplus of bombastic political rhetoric. In a crowded field Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, stood out when likening the EU to the fall of the Roman Empire. Hungary’s Viktor Orban touched a nerve with his “no road back from a multicultural Europe” speech, which in turn built on his warning over the bloc “staggering towards moonstruck ruin”. And of course Fico is FicoRead more

Jim Brunsden

Juncker urged additional eurozone reform in his "state of the union" address in Strasbourg

When Jean-Claude Juncker this week told a packed European Parliament he intends to forge a eurozone system for guaranteeing bank deposits, the European Commission president’s intention was to send a firm message of determination to strengthen the single currency’s foundations.

But just days after Juncker’s “state of the union” address, his attempt to sow hopeful seeds has hit stony ground in Berlin, where the plan was taken more as a declaration of war.

Germany’s fightback begins when finance ministers gather in Luxembourg on Friday, and is set out in a “non paper” obtained by the FT. Our story on the document in the FT’s dead-tree edition is here, but for those who want a bit more detail, we’ve posted it here, too.

Unlike the series of emergency gatherings on Greece this summer, the weekend “informal” meeting of eurozone finance ministers was intended to be a calmer, and above all shorter, stocktaking of the health of the common currency.

Now, however, Germany has decided to use it as an opportunity to put down clear red lines in an attempt to redirect the eurozone reform discussion, which gained momentum following the mess of the July Greek bailout deal on what Berlin believes is an unacceptable course. Read more

Peter Spiegel

The Franco-German contribution ahead of today's Brussels meeting contains little detail

When eurozone leaders decided last year it was time for another look at overhauling their common currency, the main driver was Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief who has been one of the main figures behind the push to make the eurozone a more fully integrated and centralised union.

But in the months since a Draghi-backed decision for the eurozone’s four presidents – the heads of the European Commission, European Council, eurogroup and ECB – to present another blueprint on the way forward at June’s EU summit, the appetite among political leaders for a step change, always lukewarm, has cooled even more.

If documents sent around to national capitals in recent days ahead of Tuesday’s Brussels meeting of EU “sherpas” – the top EU advisers to all 28 prime ministers – are any indication, the report being pulled together may propose little more than a bit of euro housekeeping in the near term. Although more ambitious plans could be included, the leaked documents show they will be relegated to the medium and long term – a tried and true EU tradition that is normally a recipe for bureaucratic burial.

Among the documents obtained by the Brussels Blog are a three-page summary of what the new report will look like (posted here) as well as a Franco-German contribution (the French version is here) and that of the Italian government (conveniently in English, here).

Although the Italians emerge as the most ambitious reformers of the lot, the “note for discussion by sherpas” makes pretty clear that the measures being contemplated for immediate action are the leftovers from recent reform efforts – streamlining and clarifying the EU’s crisis-era budget rules, for instance, and adding a bit more financial heft to the EU’s bank bailout fund. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Lord Hill says that there will be no exceptions for member states who fail to jump into line on banker bonuses. 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

Peter Spiegel

Workers shutter a branch of Laiki Bank, which was closed under Cyprus' €10bn bailout last year

For those not following every twist and turn in the EU’s debate over how to bail out failing banks, it may come as a bit of a surprise that finance ministers are still fighting over who pays for a collapsed financial institution given the deal struck in December on this very issue.

But a three-page “issues note” sent to national capitals this week ahead of EU finance ministers’ meetings on Monday and Tuesday – obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here – makes clear that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about a new EU-wide bank rescue fund to pay for such bailouts. And it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the unanswered questions centre around one thing: money. Read more

Jean-Claude Trichet, right, with the parliament's economic committee chair, Sharon Bowles

The troika of bailout lenders has not been getting much love at the European Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into its activities in recent weeks. But the criticism is not just coming from MEPs in the throes of election fever. Predictions of the troika’s demise have come from some unexpected quarters, including current and former members of the European Central Bank executive board.

During the hearings, MEPs have particularly criticised the troika — made up of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and the ECB — for its overly optimistic growth forecasts for bailout countries, which have been repeatedly revised downwards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have also suggested that the troika be subject to greater parliamentary oversight.

Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian social democrat who heads the centre-left caucus in the parliament, went further, saying the body is undemocratic, hostile to social rights and that the EU would be better off without it. 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

Peter Spiegel

Wolfgang Schäuble, centre, last week with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, right, and Dutch aide Hans Vijlbrief

EU finance ministers start descending on Brussels this evening for what is expected to be at least two days of marathon negotiations over the second leg of the EU’s nascent banking union: a new agency to deal with failing banks and an accompanying rescue fund to recapitalise them or wind them down.

Senior EU officials have begun to worry that, despite this being the second such gathering in as many weeks, differences are still so significant that a deal may not get done by the time the ministers’ bosses – the EU’s presidents and prime ministers – arrive in Brussels Thursday for their own end-of-the-year summit.

But if it falls to them, officials say the heads of government are unlikely to make final decisions on the resolution system at their two-day summit – and would only set new political parameters for their finance ministers, who might be forced to come back to Brussels over the winter holiday. Joy to the world.

So just where are the differences? The Lithuanians, as holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, helpfully produced a 19-page note for all delegations heading into tonight’s start of the talks, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and posted here. A summary on its main points after the jump. Read more