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
Britain's David Cameron meets EU's Herman Van Rompuy at Downing Street last year.
Aides to Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, have circulated an updated draft of conclusions for next week’s EU summit and, according to a copy obtained by Brussels Blog, they have retained controversial proposals for a single eurozone budget and “contracts” between eurozone countries and Brussels on economic reform programmes.
Unlike the previous proposal by Van Rompuy’s staff, which was labeled “guidelines” and intended only to generate discussion, the current text (a copy of which we’ve posted here) comes in formal “draft conclusions” form – a technical yet significant difference, meaning there was widespread support for the ideas in talks with eurozone member states.
As we reported ahead of this week’s Conservative party conference in the UK, the idea of a eurozone budget has even gained support from the British government, which views it as a way for the 17 eurozone countries to increase their spending on a European level even as the UK freezes its commitment to the EU-wide budget for all 27 members.
However, in a tweak of the Van Rompuy language that appears aimed at Britain, the communiqué makes clear that any plans for a eurozone budget – or “fiscal capacity” in eurospeak – would be separate from negotiations over the EU-wide budget, which is known as the multiannual financial framework: Read more
In today’s dead-tree version of the FT, we have a front-page story on an eight-page “draft guidelines for the conclusions” for this month’s EU summit, a document that includes some bold new ideas, like requiring eurozone countries to sign “individual contractual arrangements” with Brussels on their economic reform plans.
We thought we’d post the document (see it here) for Brussels Blog readers to get a fuller view. The parts we found most interesting begin on page 7. Senior officials caution the draft is being used to stimulate debate so that Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, can come up with a more concrete consensus heading into the summit about what can be achieved.
Indeed, the cover sheet of the draft calls it a “state of progress regarding the various topics on the agenda”; still, since it was cobbled together after Van Rompuy’s series of meetings with eurozone leaders over the past month, it reflects the thinking of a lot of national leaders, particularly in the bloc’s largest countries. Read more
Who will succeed José Manuel Barroso as president of the European commission?
That question has long been debated around the corridors and coffee bars ofBrussels. But it gained special urgency after Barroso’s state-of-the-union speech in Strasbourg last week. In it, Barroso suggested that each political party nominate their own choice for commission president and place that person atop their list for the 2014 European elections.
The idea is to generate some much-needed excitement for EU elections that tend to suffer from paltry voter turnout.
“This would be a decisive step to make the possibility of a European choice offered by these elections even clearer. I call on the political parties to commit to this step and thus to further Europeanise these elections,” Barroso said.
So that begs the question: who is generating the most buzz as the next commission president? Who has the right stuff? As a service to our readers, Brussels Blog has decided to present a list of early contenders from each of the major political families. 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
Luxembourg's Yves Mersch, left, arriving at an ECB executive board meeting in Finland last year.
Yves Mersch’s path to a seat on the European Central Bank’s powerful six-member executive board has been rocky.
The head of the Luxembourg central bank was, at first, not even considered a leading candidate for the position, which was being vacated by a Spaniard and, Madrid assumed, would be filled by a Spaniard. But a caucus of northern European countries balked at putting another southerner on the board, so inflation hawk Mersch became their candidate.
That set off months of nasty backroom battles, where the Spanish insisted on compensation – at one point they held out for the head of the new €500bn eurozone rescue fund, which was supposed to go to German economist Klaus Regling – in exchange for acceding to Mersch. Luxembourg retaliated by holding up plans to give Spain more time to hit tough budget targets.
In the end, the northerners won out. Mersch was nominated, and Spain was left empty handed. Everyone thought the fight was over. Everyone thought too soon: this morning, the European Parliament announced it was postponing Mersch’s confirmation hearing scheduled for Monday because no women candidates were considered for the job. Read more
Monti, left, and Katainen at last week's meeting between the two prime ministers in Helsinki
It is axiomatic that politics make strange bedfellows, but it would be hard to find stranger bedfellows than Finland, the orneriest of the eurozone’s austere north, and Italy, the biggest debtor in its troubled south.
Even before the eurozone debt crisis put the two countries on a collision course, Helsinki and Rome had their run-ins, particularly after Parma beat out a Finnish competitor to host the European Food Safety Authority – and then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi poured salt in the wound by suggesting EU officials would prefer Parma’s famous ham to Finnish smoked reindeer.
But are there suddenly signs of a thaw – or even an alliance? First, Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, last week decided to visit Helsinki for meetings with Jyrki Katainen, Finland’s prime minister. Now, top officials from Berlusconi’s centre-right party appear to be adopting a Finnish plan to help lower Italian borrowing costs. Read more
Spain's Mendez de Vigo, right, with his Danish counterpart at a Brussels meeting in May.
An otherwise uneventful meeting of 27 European ministers in Brussels was upended Tuesday when Inigo Méndez de Vigo, Spain’s EU minister, issued a statement saying Madrid, Rome and Paris all agreed countries were not doing enough to implement eurozone crisis decisions taken at last month’s high-stakes summit.
The statement (see it here, in Spanish) appeared to be a coordinated attack on Germany, where senior officials have spent weeks sending conflicting messages on what, exactly, was agreed at the summit and when decisions will be implemented – a big deal for Spain, since the measures could eventually mean the eurozone and not the Spanish government will be liable for debt incurred during Spain’s bank bailout.
One problem: there was no three-country agreement. And now Rome and Paris are running away from Méndez de Vigo’s statement as fast as they can. 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.
Francois Hollande rather enjoys issuing blood-curdling warnings to the City of London. During the campaign he declared his “real enemy” to be ”the world of finance” and post-election he is not toning down the rhetoric.
How ironic then that Hollande’s first major piece of EU financial regulation will see him largely siding with European banks (and yes, that includes the British ones) against calls from the UK and ECB for tougher rules.
Diplomacy in Brussels can be a funny business. Hard as it is to believe, in this negotiation the big beasts of City banking have been privately cheering on the French. Next week, when finance ministers meet to negotiate a deal, we’ll all be able to see if Hollande changes Paris’ tune. Read more
US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner
Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, has occasionally irked his European counterparts with attempts to influence the eurozone’s crisis policymaking, but European officials will be closely listening to him as the clock ticks down to next month’s spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund.
European Union leaders hope to get non-eurozone backing to double the IMF’s funding to $1tn at the gathering. Although the US won’t contribute, Washington is the IMF’s largest shareholder and is widely believed to be behind the insistence of Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, that no increase will be forthcoming unless the eurozone increases the size of its own €500bn rescue system.
Those interested in tea leaf reading will get their chance today, when Geithner testifies on Capital Hill on the eurozone crisis. The House financial services committee, where Geithner will appear, helpfully released his testimony last night, and it makes clear Geithner is in no mood to back down. Read more
Barroso, left, at Thursday's news conference with Denmark's Thorning-Schmidt in Copenhagen
A good chunk of the Brussels press corps has been in Copenhagen this week for the formal kick-off of Denmark’s turn at the EU’s 6-month rotating presidency. Days of back-to-back ministerial briefings and ceremonial events have focused intensively on the Danish government’s “green growth” agenda – down to the green skirt-clad Danish National Girls Choir performing “Plant a Tree” at a concert attended by EU bigwigs Wednesday night.
But when it came to today’s official handoff of the EU reins to Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, there was a slight hiccup: Denmark’s Vestas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, chose the same day to announce it was cutting 2,335 jobs – most of them in its home country. Read more
Uwe Corsepius, EU Council's secretary general
UPDATE: According to a British official, the UK has today been invited to participate in the treaty negotiations, a significant shift that will allow London to weigh in on some of the most sensitive issues to be discussed, including whether EU institutions will enforce the new pact.
Senior officials from European national finance ministries chatted last night in the first informal negotiations on the highly-touted new intergovernmental treaty to govern the region’s economic policy, though diplomats say little substance was discussed.
Ahead of the talks, however, Uwe Corsepius, the new secretary general of the European Council, sent out a four-page letter to negotiators in an attempt to set a roadmap for how the talks will proceed – and we at Brussels Blog got our mitts on it.
Significantly, Corsepius writes that he wants negotiations completed by the end of January “so as to allow the signature of the agreement at the beginning of March”. Officials said this is why a new informal EU summit is tentatively scheduled for early February. A first draft of the treaty text could be done by tomorrow, or early next week at the latest. Read more
Finland's Jyrki Katainen, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel and EU Commission's José Manuel Barroso at last week's summit.
This morning, we are fronting our newspaper with a story led by fellow Brussels Blogger Joshua Chaffin about the growing problems in multiple European capitals — not just London — with the nascent economic convergence treaty agreed to at last week’s summit.
That story was written with a lot of help from our network of correspondents across Europe, and given space constraints in the dead-tree version of our report, we weren’t able to go into all the detailed accounts we got from our FT colleagues. Here on the blog, we thought we’d provide a more in-depth taste of the potential hiccups ahead. Read more
Herman Van Rompuy, left, with President Barack Obama at last week's EU-US summit.
Fellow Brussels Blogger Josh Chaffin has a scoop in this morning’s paper on the five-page “interim report” on EU treaty changes for this week’s summit written by Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, which we were able to get our hands on yesterday.
Our story focuses on what is likely to be the central element debated about the report – the suddenly fashionable proposal to do a quick-and-dirty, limited treaty change through the hitherto obscure Protocol 12 of the EU treaties, which is described on page 3 of the Van Rompuy document, which Brussels Blog loyalists can read here.
But there’s much more to digest in the report, and as is our practice, we thought we’d give a more extended evaluation here on the Blog. Read more
Juncker, left, heads Eurogroup of 17 euro finance ministers. Rostowski, right, the Ecofin of all 27.
UPDATE 2: The Polish presidency has just made the official announcement. They say the cancellation allows heads of government to decide the things finance ministers were originally going to tackle. Despite negative market reaction to the news, several EU diplomats insist this is a diplomatic miscue by the Poles rather than a sign of things to come.
UPDATE: European diplomat confirms meeting of 27 EU finance ministers has been cancelled.
It’s getting uncomfortably close to crunch time for eurozone leaders, with just over 24 hours left before the summit-to-end-all-summits. But will they actually be able to agree on the big euro rescue plan? A letter sent last night by Jacek Rostowski, the Polish finance minister, makes it seem doubtful.
Since Poland currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, Rostowski is charged with convening a meeting of all 27 EU finance ministers tomorrow ahead of the big summit to lay the groundwork for a final agreement.
But officials tell Brussels Blog the so-called “Ecofin” council meeting is now likely off, and in a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who chairs the group of 17 eurozone finance ministers, Rostowski makes it appear the cancellation is due to a failure to agree on outstanding issues. Read more
France and Germany may be divided over the key issues on the agenda of today’s European Union summit. But President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel have found common ground in the need to hammer Italy over its heavy debt load.
The leaders of the EU’s biggest and most powerful member states called in Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, this morning for a pre-summit tongue-lashing. The message they delivered, according to one diplomat familiar with the discussion, was that Italy must deliver “specific and convincing reform measures soon.” They communicated a similar message to Berlusconi at a gathering on Saturday evening held by the centre-right European People’s Party.
Sarkozy also expressed his displeasure with Italy’s refusal to make way for a Frenchman on the European central bank’s executive board, according to the diplomat. France is due to lose its seat when Jean-Claude Trichet steps down as ECB president at the end of the month to be replaced by Mario Draghi, the outgoing president of the Bank of Italy. Berlusconi infuriated the French this week when he declined to free up a seat on the powerful decision-making committee by refusing to name current board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi as Draghi’s replacement. Read more