Economic governance

Van Rompuy meeting with Britain's David Cameron at Downing Street on Monday

The less-watched parallel process to selecting the new head of the European Commission has been Herman Van Rompuy’s effort, backed by several member states, to come up with a work programme for the new commission president that will lock him in for the next five years when it comes to policy programmes and priorities.

Even though advocates of such an idea appear to be pushing the same policies that are mentioned in nearly every EU summit communiqué, several countries – including strange bedfellows like the Netherlands and Italy – have argued such an agenda is in some ways more important than the leader who takes over the commission in November. They insist it will enable Europe’s prime ministers to put their stamp on the next commission and its priorities after the European Parliament was seen to have dragged the current one around.

As a first step towards agreeing such a programme, Van Rompuy, the outgoing European Council president, on Monday circulated a four-page “strategic agenda” for the new commission, which he hopes to get agreed at this week’s high-stakes EU summit. We wrote about it here, but as usual for readers of Brussels Blog, we’re providing a bit more detail for those more interested, including a copy of the document, which we’ve posted hereRead 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

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

Merkel mentioned the "contractual arrangements" in maiden Bundestag speech of her third term

Although the two-day EU summit that begins today in Brussels is nominally about defence policy, the main event most delegations were watching was whether summiteers would sign up to a German-backed plan that would require all eurozone countries to sign annual contracts with Brussels obligating them to liberalise their economies.

These so-called “contractual arrangements” have been bubbling around for more than a year, but fiercely resisted by Italy and other southern eurozone countries, who view it as another effort by Berlin to dictate economic policy for the rest of the currency union. Angela Merkel, in her maiden speech before the Bundestag after her re-election as German chancellor yesterday, mentioned them yet again as a necessity.

Paris has led the charge to change contracts into more of a two-way street: If eurozone countries are going to be forced to sign such agreements – which in many ways echo the “memorandums of understanding” that now are forced on bailout countries like Greece– then they should get some financial assistance in return.

Originally, Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, advocated a eurozone budget accessible to countries that participate and would pool responsibility for things like unemployment insurance. That idea didn’t go very far, but in the last draft of the summit communiqué sent to national delegations last night (and obtained by Brussels Blog) suggests other financial sweeteners – like loans, grants or guarantees – might be in the offing. 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

Sweden's Borg, centre, during last night's meeting, where he sparred with his Dutch counterpart

It’s become something of a routine in the EU’s ongoing effort to build a “banking union” that finance ministers try to come to a deal at their normal Brussels meetings – only to fail and call a special emergency session at the 11th hour before a crucial summit.

It happened last December when ministers held a last-minute emergency meeting to agree a new EU supervisor for all eurozone banks; it happened again in June to get to a deal on rules for how much creditors should lose when a bank fails. After yesterday’s 15-hour marathon on a new EU bank resolution authority, ministers will now have one last shot next Wednesday before the last EU summit of the year begins the next day.

The hold-up this time is a dispute over how a new EU-wide bank rescue fund should function. And if anyone is looking for evidence of how much work still needs to be done, consider these two documents which were circulated among finance ministers late last night – one here outlining an emergency backup to the fund and another here on a new treaty to set up the fund. Both are almost completely substance free, meaning a lot must be done before Wednesday. Read more

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, during the marathon talks on Tuesday

EU finance ministers meeting late into the night are edging closer to a deal on a new European bank executioner. But as always in the eurozone crisis, ministers have become hung up on small but potential significant details. Officials say the differences are significant enough that a final deal will have to be delayed until next week.

Brussels Blog got its hand on “Terms of Reference” circulated by the Lithuanians, who hold the rotating EU presidency, around 6:30pm this evening that includes some details that are new – but have already raised objections in certain quarters. We’ve posted a copy of the 10-page document hereRead more

Van Rompuy at last month's EU summit. Will December's summit agree to the contracts?

When is a eurozone bailout not a eurozone bailout?

It’s a question that sherpas to the EU’s presidents and prime ministers will be grappling with on Tuesday when they are scheduled to debate a new proposal from Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, intended to further centralise economic decision-making in Brussels.

Under the 9-page plan (first uncovered by our friends and rivals at Reuters; we’ve posted the copy we got our hands on here), a country that is struggling economically could agree to a “contractual agreement” with Brussels that legally codifies its economic reform programme.

In return, that country could avail itself of a low-cost loan that would only be disbursed in tranches to insure compliance with the “contractual arrangement”. Oh, and one other thing: the European Commission would monitor the country to make sure its complying with the “contractual arrangement”.

Legally-binding economic reform agreement. Low-cost eurozone loans. European Commission monitoring missions. Sounds a bit like a bailout, no? Well, because it would be available to all eurozone countries, Van Rompuy doesn’t call it a bailout. In eurocrat-ese, it’s a “solidarity mechanism”. And if sherpas give it the signoff Tuesday, it will be debated by EU leaders at their December summitRead more

Rehn, right, consults with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble at last month's IMF meetings.

Over the last few weeks, the normally über-dismal science of German economic policymaking has unexpectedly become stuff of international diplomatic brinkmanship, after the US Treasury department accused Berlin of hindering eurozone and global growth by suppressing domestic demand at a time its economy is growing on the backs of foreigners buying German products overseas.

The accusation not only produced the expected counterattack in Berlin, but has become the major debating point among the economic commentariat. Our own Martin Wolf, among others, has taken the side of Washington and our friend and rival Simon Nixon over at the Wall Street Journal today has backed the Germans.

Now comes the one voice that actually can do something about it: Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic tsar who just made his views known in a blog post on his website. Why should Rehn’s views take precedence? Thanks to new powers given to Brussels in the wake of the eurozone crisis, he can force countries to revise their economic policies – including an oversized current account surplus – through something soporifically known as the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.

On Wednesday, Rehn will announce his decision on whether Germany will be put in the dock for exactly what the US has been accusing it of: building up a current account surplus at the expense of its trading partners. And if Rehn’s blog post is any indication, he’s heading in exactly that direction. 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