One of the more controversial actions taken by the Juncker Commission in its still-short life was January’s move to make the EU’s crisis-era budget rules more “flexible,” an announcement many took as a signal it was preparing to let both Italy and France off the hook for their recent fiscal transgressions. Which it ultimately did.
According to Commission officials, the so-called “flexibility communication” caused ructions among the 28 commissioners both because of its substance and the process by which it was agreed: the college was only allowed to see a hard copy of the highly-technical document for about a half hour before it was taken away, and then presented for adoption later in the day.
Among those who were angered by the way it was forced through the college over the complaints of some of the Commission’s budget hawks was Chancellor Angela Merkel who, according to our friends and rivals at the German weekly Der Spiegel (no relation), complained to Juncker that “her commissioner” – German Günther Oetttinger – had only received the document a few hours before it was to be approved. “Why ‘your’ commissioner?” Juncker reportedly replied coolly. “That’s my commissioner.”
Now it seems that Berlin is not the only place where objections are being raised about some of the decisions taken in the “flexibility communication”. According to a leaked opinion by the European Council’s legal service – which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here – last month, lawyers on the other side of Rue de la Loi appear to have decided a central part of the new guidelines might be illegal. Read more
ECB chief Mario Draghi, right, with France's François Hollande at October's EU summit
The dance had become so routine that we at the Brussels Blog were thinking of giving it a name, the Eurozone Two-Step.
Ever since the eurozone crisis first rocked international markets nearly five years ago, European Central Bank chiefs – first Jean-Claude Trichet, then Mario Draghi – sent a very clear message to the currency union’s political leaders: we can only act if you act first.
The deal was never explicit, but both sides knew what was required. The ECB’s first sovereign bond purchase programme in May 2010 came only after eurozone leaders created a new €440bn bailout fund; its €1tn in cheap loans to eurozone banks in early 2012 only came after political leaders agreed to a new “fiscal compact” of tough budget rules.
But with the markets watching Frankfurt closely for signs Draghi is about to launch another bold move – US-style quantitative easing, purchasing sovereign bonds to halt fears the bloc is headed into a deflationary spiral – there are new indications one of the partners is no longer dancing.
Back in October at a eurozone summit, Draghi was able to get a little-noticed statement out of the assembled leaders committing them to another “Four Presidents Report”, a reference to the blueprint delivered in 2012 that set a path towards further centralisation of eurozone economic policy. The report helped kick-start the EU’s just-completed “banking union.”
Progress on that 2012 blueprint has since stalled, however, and at his last summit press conference, then-European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said the new “Four Presidents Report” would be delivered at the December EU summit, which starts next Thursday. Many in Brussels saw this as the quid for Draghi’s quo – once the leaders agreed to another blueprint for eurozone integration, Draghi would have a free hand to launch QE.
But according to a leaked draft of the communiqué for next week’s summit, Draghi may have to deliver his quo without a eurozone quid. The text (which we’ve posted here) makes clear that leaders have no intention of delivering a new blueprint any time soon. Read more
At a time when Mario Draghi’s style of running the European Central Bank is under question – there’s reportedly been grumbling he’s setting monetary policy in off-the-cuff public remarks rather than in consultation with the bank’s board members – it is easy to forget that Draghi’s most famous act as ECB chief was also an unscripted public utterance: “whatever it takes”.
The now-famous 2012 remark, which is widely credited with ending the hair-on-fire phase of the eurozone crisis by hinting the ECB would use its printing presses to buy up sovereign debt of besieged governments, has long been viewed as a masterstroke of market management, since the ECB has yet to spend a cent on such bond purchases.
But as the FT and other news organisations have reported, many on the ECB governing council were taken aback by the remarks because the issue wasn’t discussed more widely before Draghi declared it as ECB policy.
The Brussels Blog recently got its hands on yet more evidence that Draghi’s remarks – made at a conference in London in July 2012 – were inserted at the last minute without wider consultation: raw transcripts of discussions with Timothy Geithner, who was US treasury secretary at the time, about the eurozone crisis.
The 100 pages of transcripts we obtained are of interviews Geithner gave to assistants preparing his book, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, which was published in May. Many of the recollections also appear in the book, but Geithner provides more detail and more bluntness – including a fondness for the f-word – in the pages we obtained.
This is particularly the case for the “whatever it takes” speech. In his book, Geithner mentions the remark was impromptu. But in the transcript, Geithner reveals his source for that passage: Draghi himself, who told Geithner he had decided to insert the words into his address after meeting with London financiers who were convinced the eurozone was on the brink of implosion. Here’s the section of the transcript relating to Draghi’s speech: Read more
Renzi arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and quickly took issue with Barroso
If you read the EU’s budget rules, it appears to be a cut and dried affair: if the European Commission has concerns that a eurozone country’s budget is in “particularly serious non-compliance” with deficit or debt limits, it has to inform the government of its concerns within one week of the budget’s submission. Such contact is the first step towards sending the budget back entirely for revision.
As the FT was the first to report this week, the Commission decided to notify five countries – Italy, France, Austria, Slovenia and Malta – that their budgets may be problematic on Wednesday. Helpfully, the Italian government posted the “strictly confidential” letter it received from the Commission’s economic chief, Jyrki Katainen, on its website today.
But at day one of the EU summit in Brussels, the letter – and Italy’s decision to post it – suddenly became the subject of a very public tit-for-tat between José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minster.
Barroso fired the first shot at a pre-summit news conference, expressing surprise and annoyance that Renzi’s government had decided to make the letter public. For good measure, he took a pop at the Italian press, which in recent days has been reporting that Barroso was the one pushing for a hard line against Rome, and implying he was motivated by his desire to score political points back home in Portugal, where he has long been rumoured as a potential presidential candidate after leaving the Commission:
The first thing I will say is this: If you look at the Italian press, if you look at most of what is reported about what I’ve said or what the Commission has said, most of this news is absolutely false, surreal, having nothing to do with reality. And if they coincide with reality, I think it’s by chance.
Having trouble following the fight over the EU’s budget rules? You’re not alone. They are fiendishly complicated, particularly since nearly every eurozone country is at risk of violating a different part of them.
Is your deficit over 3 per cent of economic output? Then you’re in the “excessive deficit procedure”. Is your deficit under 3 per cent but at risk of going over? Then you’re in the “preventative arm”. What if your deficit is under 3 per cent, but your national debt is over 60 per cent of gross domestic product? Well, you can still be in an “excessive deficit procedure” if you don’t cut the debt fast enough.
There are so many iterations that the European Commission has an entire 115-page “vade mecum” – fancy Latin for “guidebook” – for those trying to figure out how they work.
The complexity of the rules has made it particularly difficult to judge the new Italian budget, submitted – along with all other eurozone countries, save bailout countries Greece and Cyprus – to the European Commission on Wednesday. Read more
Latvia's Valdis Dombrovskis was heckled by some MEPs at his hearing on Monday.
After six hours of testimony over the last week between Pierre Moscovici and Valdis Dombrovskis, some MEPs are still fuming that they have no idea which one will be in charge of ruling on national budgets as part of the EU’s annual review process.
Moscovici, the former French finance minister, has been nominated economics commissioner and is seen by centre-right MEPs as too lax on fiscal matters; Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister, will be vice-president for the euro and seen by the centre-left as a disciple of the EU’s austerity school of economics.
As we reported last week, going into their confirmation hearings it looked like the two men would basically share the role. But neither gave clear answers of how their division of labour would work at their hearings, leading French MEP Sylvie Goulard, the top Liberal on the economics committee, to heckle Dombrovskis: “So we don’t know?” she shouted after he failed to explain who would represent the eurozone at international fora like the IMF and G-20.
In an effort to gain clarity, the economic committee leadership on Monday sent a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming commission president, asking for further clarification. We’ve obtained his response, and posted it here. It doesn’t provide a huge amount of additional clarity. Read more
Pierre Moscovici arrives in Paris for the government's confidence vote earlier this month.
One of the most highly anticipated confirmation hearings in the European Parliament this week will be that of Pierre Moscovici, the former French finance minister tapped to be the European Commission’s new economic chief, who will appear before the economic affairs committee on Thursday morning.
Members of the parliament’s centre-right grouping, the European People’s party, have vowed to give him a grilling on whether he will vigorously enforce the EU’s tough budget rules – particularly since he comes from a French Socialist government that has advocated more flexibility in the rules.
As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming Commission president, took the unusual step of issuing a legal decision that spells out in black and white Moscovici’s relationship with the Commission’s new vice president in charge of the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister with a reputation as a deficit hawk. Here’s the relevant paragraph:
We have posted the entire 6-page document here. Most of it is unsurprising boilerplate – though there is a somewhat intriguing US-style line of succession among the vice presidents on page 2, which ranks Dutchman Frans Timmermans first and Finland’s Jyrki Katainen last. Read more
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 here. 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
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 here. Read 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 summit. Read 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
Moscovici, left, and Rehn at press conference where Rehn held the new French budget aloft
After an hour-long meeting this afternoon up in Olli Rehn’s office in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, Rehn and Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, wandered down to a crowded press area to make the expected enthusiastic noises about Paris’s economic reform effort.
But what might be most noticeable about the appearance was not what was said but what was done: Moscovici handed over a copy of France’s 2014 budget, which he had unveiled in Paris just yesterday.
“Pierre has given me the draft budget law for 2014 for France,” Rehn said, holding aloft the document, marked “Projet de Loi de Finances 2014” on the cover. “This is the real spirit of governance at the European level.”
To the uninitiated, the display might have appeared to be a bit of empty symbolism, a courtesy Moscovici was paying to the perpetually besieged Rehn. But there was nothing symbolic about the handover. This year, for the first time in EU history, every eurozone member must submit its national budget to Rehn’s office for review within the next two weeks – before they are debated by national parliaments. Read more
Reactions around Europe to Angela Merkel’s sweeping victory in Sunday’s German parliamentary elections were mixed. As expected, fellow leaders – particularly those of the centre-right persuasion – sent their congratulations while some on the centre-left called for Merkel to join the Social Democrats in a grand coalition.
In Italy, the Berlusconi-owned newspaper Il Giornale warned the result left the EU “in the hands of the chancellor who helped exacerbate the economic crisis.”
The differing views reflect increasingly polarising opinions towards Merkel across the eurozone. Just last week, the German Marshall Fund published its annual “Transatlantic Trends” report, which included polling of 11 EU countries (plus Turkey) and their views of Merkel’s handling of the eurozone crisis.
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