Pity the Lithuanians. When assuming the EU rotating presidency next month they will inherit the mother of all regulatory backlogs, especially when it comes to the financial sector. It is an impossible and thankless task, a numbingly complex pile of half-negotiated, often paralysed and always contentious directives and regulations, which the European Commission is still adding to with some gusto.
There are going to be around 25 financial services files for the Lithuanians to shepherd through, either in negotiations between member states, or directly with the European parliament. The poor Lithuanian officials strong-armed to work the files will have to become instant experts. Most of the proposals will require countless long meetings with member state or parliamentary negotiators; some will need ministerial input and some sacrificial political blood.
The demands could dwarf the resources and time available. After March 2014, the parliament essentially shuts shop for European-wide elections, so the Lithuanian presidency, which runs through the end of this year, is pivotal. Some countries only have one or two financial services attachés covering the bulk of files. Getting MEPs together for talks is like herding cats. Getting them to agree is even harder, especially in this pre-election environment. A lot of the initiatives will not make it through; their fate is then in the hands of the next leaders of the EU’s parliament, commission and council.
Rehn: critics of Cyprus bailout are "comparing apples with pears and coming up with oranges."
During a debate in the European Parliament this morning, Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, got roughed up by MEPs lambasting the handling of the €10bn Cypriot bailout by the so-called “troika” of international lenders, of which the Commission is a member.
Jean-Paul Gauzés, the French conservative who led the debate for centre-right parties, called it “disastrous”; his centre-left counterpart, Austrian Hannes Swoboda, dubbed it “neo-colonial” and called on Rehn to disband the troika altogether.
In his response, Rehn chose instead to focus on remarks by Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green, who questioned why the size of Cyprus’ funding needs had risen by €6bn over the nine days between the first botched bailout agreement and the second, final deal struck the following weekend:
A month before this famous weekend, €17bn was necessary in order to render Cypriot debt sustainable. Now we found at last week it’s €23bn. Just a slight mistake, a comma here or there. Those who carry out the forecasts and estimates for you, are they incompetent…or was it: well, we’ll play around with the figures to make sure reality looks better than it really is?
Someone may well have been drinking absinthe when they decided it would be a good idea to pack up an entire parliament once a month and shuttle its members and their assorted aides and documents to a second home 400 kilometers away.
On Wednesday, members of the European parliament, meeting in their Strasbourg quarters, will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with absinthe, the spirit renowned for its green tint and supposedly psychedelic properties. Specifically, they will be voting to determine just what absinthe is.
Their decision could escalate a brewing fight between northern and southern European makers of the spirit, which gained fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a favoured drink for bohemians and artists including Rimbaud, Degas, Hemingway and Toulouse-Lautrec.
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?
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.
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.
It’s hard enough to get 27 member states to agree unanimously on a seven-year, €1,000bn budget – as anyone following the latest EU summit wrestling match can attest. But completing an EU budget deal requires one more thing: the consent of the European parliament.
Martin Schulz, the German social democrat and parliament president, reminded EU leaders and the Brussels press pack of this fact on Thursday evening. In a mildly foreboding press conference, Schulz re-stated his threat that leaders should be prepared for MEPs to block any budget proposal that strays too far from the €1,033bn proposal submitted more than a year ago by the European commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“Yes, we are prepared to make savings, but we are not prepared to have the European Union budget simply amputated,” he said.
Schulz declined to say whether the latest €960bn proposal being considered by Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, crossed the line from extreme weight loss to amputation. But he was clearly displeased.
The big question entering Thursday’s summit is whether Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, can find the right balance between the UK’s demands for an austere long-term budget and France and Italy’s calls for a more robust one. The more Van Rompuy stretches toward the Brits and fellow budget hawks by reducing his proposal, the more those on the other side of the debate pull back. Eventually, the whole thing could snap.
But on the eve of the big meeting, Van Rompuy may have found a clever way to give his budget more elasticity: By increasing the gap between budget commitments and payments.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage at a European Parliament session in Strasbourg last year
Following prime minister David Cameron’s address on Britain’s EU future, there may not be two politicians in Europe spoiling for a fight more than the two men who are arguably the most high-profile members of the European Parliament: Nigel Farage and Guy Verhofstadt.
There’s one thing Britain’s foremost eurosceptic and Belgium’s most prominent European federalist agreed on: Within minutes of Cameron finishing his speech in London, both had blasted out e-mail responses lambasting it.
Farage, however, prefaced his criticism by saying he viewed it as the “greatest achievement to date” of his political group, the UK Independence Party, since it put Britain’s EU exit firmly on the agenda.
Martin Schulz, far right, with his fellow EU presidents ahead of budget talks on Monday.
Just how bleak do things look for next week’s summit intended to reach a deal on the EU’s next €1tn seven-year budget?
Only hours after French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault threw cold water on the latest compromise effort, another major player in the game – Martin Schulz, the European parliament president – said he now expected the high-stakes summit to come up empty.
“I’m very sceptical about an agreement next week,” Schulz told a small group of Brussels-based reporters, arguing that the compromise put out yesterday by Herman Van Rompuy, European Council president, was significantly different from that offered by the Cypriot presidency just two weeks ago – a sign of “how deep the division is within the Council.”
Van Rompuy’s proposal (a leaked copy of which we’ve posted here) has set off another round of recriminations, helping turn a meeting this morning of EU ambassadors into a complaint-fest, diplomats said. But Schulz said he believed the biggest stumbling block remained Britain, which is the only country calling for a complete EU budget freeze.