EU

Hill's new proposal on asset-backed securities is his first major piece of legislation

Having faced a flood of EU rules over the last six years intended to regulate “every corner” of the financial system, banks are in for something unusual next month when the European Commission will explicitly propose to dial back on one of the primary obligations they now face.

Jonathan Hill, the EU’s financial services chief, is set to propose a substantial reduction of capital requirements on banks’ holdings of securitised debt, in an effort to spur lending and growth. Similar plans are in the pipelines for insurers. We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the plans and have posted them here and here.

While his predecessor, France’s Michel Barnier, pledged during his mandate to tackle what he said were both structural and moral weaknesses in the financial system, Britain’s Hill has said that “today the biggest threat to financial stability is the lack of growth and jobs.”

The proposal on asset-backed securities (ABS) is the first major piece of legislation Hill has proposed since taking office in November. If approved by governments and the European Parliament, the new securitisation rules would amend one of Barnier’s signature legislative achievements: the EU’s new bank capital rulebook adopted in 2013.

But the change of approach from Barnier to Hill is not as neat (regulation-minded Frenchman to lax Anglo-Saxon) as it first appears. In his last year in office, Barnier had already steered the agenda towards how regulation can support long term financing of the economy, saying that the job of post-crisis re-regulation was largely complete. In addition, key parts of the current commission’s plans for a “capital markets union” draw on a Barnier-era policy paper. Read more

Varoufakis, right, with his successor Euclid Tsakalotos in parliament last week

The London-based Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, headed by an ex-Financial Times scribe – managing director David Marsh – on Monday released a 24-minute audiotape of a teleconference they held nearly two weeks ago with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister.

Details of the call were first revealed by the Greek daily Kathimerini, and much of most sensational revelations Varoufakis made were about a surreptitious project he and a small team of aides worked on to set up a parallel payments system that could be activated if the European Central Bank forced the shutdown of the Greek financial system.

But Varoufakis also made some other interesting allegations, including claims the International Monetary Fund believes the Greek bailout is doomed and that Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, offered him another ministry shortly after he was relieved as finance minister.

We’ve had a listen to the entire call, and transcribed most of it – excluding some inconsequential asides to the teleconference’s hosts, Messrs Marsh and Norman Lamont, the former UK finance minister.

The recording starts with an apparent interruption of the speakers; the teleconference operator announces that the call is now being recorded. Then Varoufakis begins:

The thing is, I have to admit we did not have a mandate for bringing Greece out of the euro. What we had a mandate to do was to negotiate for a kind of arrangement with the eurogroup, with the European Central Bank that would render Greece sustainable within the eurozone.

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Donald Tusk, the European Council president, listens to a question during Thursday's interview

After spending much of the six-month standoff between Greece and its eurozone creditors on the sidelines, Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who is now European Council president, became the central actor in the Greek drama over the weekend when a summit he chaired became the scene of 17-hour marathon talks that finally led to a deal on Monday morning.

In a 90 minute interview with the Financial Times and six European newspapers, Tusk gave a behind-the-scenes account of how the deal was brokered – but he also gave voice to fears that the standoff has given new energy to radical political forces in Europe that has made 2015 resemble 1968. Our full write-up of the interview, focusing on his concerns about renewed radicalisation can be read here.

But as is our practice at the Brussels Blog, we’re providing a transcript of the interview below. It is slightly edited to eliminate occasionally long-winded questions and topics not directly related to the Greek crisis.

The interview started with a question on Germany and whether Tusk agreed with some commentators that Berlin’s standing in Europe has been hurt by perceptions Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, bullied Greece and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, into a deal on her terms.

I think the position in Germany today, after this negotiation, is maybe not weaker, but for sure not more powerful. It was one of my main aims in these negotiations, to avoid this risk that someone is a loser and someone is a winner, especially because as you noticed, for sure, the discussion during this economic negotiation was also about things like dignity, humiliation, trust. From history, we know very well that we can’t ignore such values, or such feelings or emotions like dignity, humiliation and trust, especially when we go back to German history. The discussion about dignity and humiliation could recall the most dangerous time in Europe, and this is why I think it’s very important to avoid this dimension in discussions and in negotiation because for sure what we needed was to have no losers and no winners in this context.

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After more than 14 hours of negotiations, finance ministers from across the eurozone agreed on the below. It outlines the hoops that Greece has to jump through in order to get a chance of receiving a bailout of between €82bn and €86bn.

Here is the draft from 4pm. Below are some of the highlights. Read more

The discussions held on Saturday and Sunday among eurozone finance ministers exposed fissures between one group of European governments that have lost almost all faith in the radical leftist-led government of Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s premier, a second group that contends it is time to cut Greece some slack and move on with another rescue programme, and a third group that straddles the first two.

Nevertheless, the important point is that impatience with the Syriza-dominated government in Athens is not so deep and universal that a consensus exists to prepare the ground for a Greek exit from the eurozone, with all its unpredictable economic, financial and geopolitical implications. In this respect the opposition of France and Italy, and of the European Commission, to such a step is proving to be decisive. Read more

Euclid Tsakalotos, the new Greek finance minister, at Tuesday's eurogroup meeting

Late on Thursday, the Greek government submitted its long-awaited economic reform proposal to go along with Wednesday’s request for a new three-year bailout programme.

The package sent to creditors included three documents: first is a letter from Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, which we’ve posted here; second it a more detailed letter from Euclid Tsakalotos (here), the new finance minister; and the third is what’s called the “prior actions” – a 13-page plan of reform measures that must be completed prior to winning bailout aid (here).

We will more completely gut these documents in the morning, but a few things that stand out. First, none of the documents mentions debt relief. This was a major demand of Yanis Varoufakis, Tsakalotos’ predecessor. And while it is obliquely mentioned in Wednesday’s bailout request, there’s nothing in the documents sent to Brussels Thursday night that mentions the topic.

Instead, what is interesting about both the Tsipras and Tsakalotos letters is their explicit mention of wanting to remain in the EU’s common currency. As Tsipras puts it:

With this proposal, the Greek people and the Greek government confirm their commitment to fulfilling reforms that will ensure Greece remains a member of the Eurozone and ending the economic crisis. The Greek government is committed to fully implementing this reform agenda – starting with immediate actions – as well as to engaging [sic] constructively on the basis of this agenda, in the negotiations for the ESM loan.

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Greece's Alexis Tsipras, left, with Germany's Angela Merkel on Tuesday night in Brussels

Greek authorities got their final dash to find a bailout agreement before the weekend formally underway on Wednesday by submitting a simple one-page request to the eurozone’s €500bn bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, for a new three-year programme.

Under the timetable agreed with EU leaders at Tuesday night’s summit, the request letter is something of a formality. The real details are due on Thursday, when Athens will submit their “prior actions” proposal – the detailed economic reforms that they will pursue under a new, third programme.

Still, the letter (which we’ve posted here) includes some interesting clues as to where Athens is headed. First of all, Greece is seeking a three-year programme and not a two-year bailout that was requested last week. The International Monetary Fund has estimated a three-year programme could cost as much as €70bn.

The letter also suggests Athens is willing to “immediately implement…as early as the beginning of next week” some of the things that creditors were demanding during negotiations on its old €172bn rescue, which expired June 30 – including tax reforms and pension system overhaul.

This appears part of an effort to quickly release short-term “bridge financing” so that Athens can repay the €1.5bn it still owes to the IMF, avoid a default on a €3.5bn bond due the European Central Bank in less than two weeks, and pay another €3.2bn ECB-held bond in August. Read more

Greece’s recently-departed finance minister Yanis Varoufakis repeatedly argued that Greece could never leave the eurozone because there is nothing in the EU treaties that permits exit from the bloc’s common currency. But that hasn’t stopped EU lawyers from looking.

According to eurozone officials, EU legal scholars have been combing through the treaties to find provisions that would allow for Grexit – not because it is something they’re pushing for, but rather because they’re worried the country could be soon entering a legal limbo that could prevent it from getting the financial aid it desperately needs.

If Greece begins printing its own money – which could happen in a matter of weeks if the European Central Bank decides to cut off emergency loans to Greek financial institutions – it may no longer be eligible for aid from the eurozone’s €500bn rescue fund, since it is using a different currency.

But because Greece would still be legally part of the eurozone, it wouldn’t be eligible for the aid scheme reserved for non-EU countries, known as a “balance of payments assistance” programme. Hungary, Romania and pre-euro Latvia all received so-called “BPA” programmes during the crisis.

The traditional assumption is that because there is no explicit way to leave the eurozone, the only clause that comes into play is Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows for withdrawal from the entire EU. This would require Greece to request a departure, however, which is unlikely, and while there are an increasing number of leaders willing to let Greece leave the eurozone, none want it to leave the EU.

Officials say lawyers are instead looking at Article 7, which was adopted for a very different reason: In the wake of the Austrian government’s decision to include the far-right Freedom Party of nationalist Jörg Haider in a coalition, EU leaders wanted a way to punish countries that did not live up to European values. Read more

What would a third bailout for Greece look like? The International Monetary Fund has provided the first public insight into how much it could cost, and it will be expensive. According to IMF estimates, over the next three years, Greece will need €52bn in new bailout financing.

That is close to an estimate we came up with in February. But that may not even be enough. The new IMF debt sustainability analysis, which we’ve posted here, assumes the money in the EU bailout that just disappeared would be used to cover Greek needs through October. That cash, about €16.3bn, is now gone. So the total price tag could go up to close to €70bn.

But that’s not all. The IMF report also assumes the budget targets and economic growth projections made during the recent negotiations still hold. Under that plan, Greece would post a primary budget surplus – revenues minus expenses, when interest on debt isn’t counted – of 1 per cent of gross domestic product this year, rising gradually to 3.5 per cent in 2018.

It also assumed no economic growth this year, but a return to 2 per cent growth next year and 3 per cent in 2017 and 2018.

Given Greek banks have been closed for a week and its economy is in free-fall, those targets are, in all likelihood, becoming more outdated by the minute. Read more

Demonstrators backing a "yes" vote in Sunday's referendum in front of the Greek parliament

It may have come a few days too late, but Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, appears to have conceded on a whole raft of outstanding differences between his government and its international bailout creditors.

According to a letter sent late Tuesday night to the heads of the country’s trio of bailout monitors, which we got our hands on and have posted here, Tsipras concedes to most of the economic reform proposals published by the European Commission on Sunday, with a few significant exceptions that could still trip up any deal.

On one of the most contentious issues, overhauling the country’s value-added tax system, Tsipras still wants a special exemption for Greek islands, some of which are in remote areas and have difficulty accessing basic daily needs.

Keeping the islands’ exemption in place has been one of the main demands of Tsipras’ junior coalition partners, the right-wing Independent Greeks party. But creditors, whose main goal is simplifying one of the EU’s most exemption-ridden VAT schemes, have balked, saying it requires an entirely separate administration to keep the islands on a different, reduced rate.

On the toughest of all issues between the two sides, pension reform, Tsipras is demanding even more concessions, which come after the creditors have already moved quite a bit in Athens’ direction. Read more

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, has once again changed the terms of the debate in the ongoing crisis by requesting a new third bailout from the eurozone’s €500bn bailout fund, known as the European Stability Mechanism, just hours before his current bailout expires.

According to a copy of the letter sent to the ESM and Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs the committee of his eurozone counterparts, which we’ve posted here, the loan request is for €29.1bn to cover debts maturing into 2017.

That would seem to be a pretty traditional bailout request. But it also contains some untraditional demands that may be difficult for creditors to accept. Below is an annotated version of Tsipras’ letter:

Dear Chairperson, dear President,

On behalf of the Hellenic Republic (“the Republic” or “Greece”), I hereby present a request for stability support within the meaning of Articles 12 and 16 of the ESM Treaty.

The ESM treaty is the law that now governors all eurozone bailouts. It wasn’t in place for either Greece’s first or second bailouts, but it would set the terms for its third. Articles 12 and 16 simply state the purpose of a bailout programme: to “to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as a whole and of its Member States.” Unfortunately for Tsipras, Article 16 also happens to mention that a new programme must include a new “MoU” – or memorandum of understanding, a phrase that is politically poisonous in Greece.

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The EU’s top judge has written to the European Parliament’s president to complain about an MEP involved in the long-running and increasingly bad-tempered attempts to reform the general court of the European Court of Justice.

As a recap, the number of judges in the general court is set to double from 28 to 56 by 2019. The court itself had initially asked only for an extra 12, to deal with an increased caseload. But when this proposal was sent to the European Council, member states nixed the idea because they could not agree which countries would get the extra judges.

The council kept blocking the proposal until they got what they wanted: a proposal of 28 judges — one for each member state. This has upset some within the court, who argue that they are already hacking through the backlog of cases and, in some cases, are actually underworked. On top of this, at €220,000 each – plus generous allowances – the extra judges are not cheap.

Antonio Marinho e Pinto, a Portuguese MEP who is helping spearhead European Parliament work on the proposal, has been making life awkward. In April, he invited a handful of judges who had been critical of the reforms to Brussels to address MEPs. Likewise, in June he circulated figures which showed that the backlog of court cases was less severe than had been portrayed.

This behaviour has displeased Vassilios Skouris, president of the European Court of Justice, who sent the below letter to Martin Schulz, the European Parliament president, to complain. Read more

Demonstrators hold up placards urging a "no" vote in Sunday's bailout referendum

[UPDATE] Late on Monday, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, wrote to Alexis Tsirpas, the Greek prime minister, to inform him that his request for reconsidering an extension of his country’s bailout had been denied. We’ve obtained a copy of that letter, too, and posted it here.

In it, he notes the eurogroup of finance ministers already decided the issue, adding:

After consultations with leaders, in the absence of new elements, I see no willingness to go against the position expressed by finance ministers at their 27 June meeting.

This is likely the last chance Tsipras had to avoid having Greece’s EU bailout expire on Tuesday night. With that gone, on Wednesday his country goes without an EU safety net for the first time in five years.

There may be less than 48 hours remaining in Greece’s EU bailout, and Saturday’s decision by eurozone finance ministers not to extend the programme through next Sunday’s Greek referendum on creditors’ “final” offer was largely seen as the final nail in the rescue’s coffin.

But could it still be extended at the 11th hour?

That’s clearly the hope of Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, who has written to all eurozone heads of government asking them to reconsider the decision. We’ve obtained a copy of the letter sent to Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who takes over the EU’s rotating presidency this week. A copy of the letter is posted hereRead more

Tsipras at Saturday's parliamentary debate in Athens on legislation to call a referendum

The decision by Alexis Tsipras to hold a referendum on the creditors’ final bailout offer may have changed the political dynamics of the standoff between Athens and its international lenders, but what’s at stake financially really hasn’t changed.

On Friday, there was a bit of buzz that creditors had tabled a new €15.3bn offer to Greece to extend the current bailout through the end of November. But in reality, there was nothing new to it at all. It is essentially all the money left in the bailout, which was presented to Athens in a more fully articulated two-page memo.

Brussels Blog got its hand on the memo, and we’ve posted it here (apologies for its slightly rumpled appearance…I put it in the wrong pocket of my briefcase).

The main question that needs to be addressed with this document is: why are creditors offering €15.3bn rather than the €7.2bn tranche that they’ve been discussing for nearly a year? Read more

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, left, with Greece's negotiating team at the eurogroup

Athens’ final counterproposal to its trio of bailout monitors would re-impose many of the large-scale corporate taxes and pension contributions that creditors demanded be stripped out amid concern it would plunge Greece into a deeper recession.

According to a copy, distributed to eurozone finance ministers Thursday and obtained by the Financial Times, Athens has stuck with its demand for a one-time 12 per cent tax on all corporate profits above €500,000, a measure the government estimates will raise nearly €1.4bn by the end of next year.

In addition, it would raise employer contributions to Greece’s main pension fund by 3.9 per cent and would more slowly implement measures to raise the country’s retirement age to 67 and “replace” rather than phase out a special “solidarity grant” to poorer pensioners.

We have posted a copy of the Greek counterproposal here.

Greece’s bailout creditors – the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission – eliminated the one-time profits tax and the increase in employer contributions to the pension system in their offer to Athens yesterday, arguing that such heavy levies on companies would severely hit economic growth. It also pushed for more aggressive timeline for raising the retirement age and cutting the special top-up for poorer pensioners.

Still, the Greek plans contain some key concessions from the original proposal submitted by Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, to creditors in an offer made on Monday. Although legislation raising the retirement age would not be implemented until the end of October – creditors want it to kick in immediately – it accepts the 67-year retirement age should be hit by 2022. Originally, Athens was proposing 2025. Read more

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, eurogroup chief, confers with Mario Draghi, ECB president, on Wednesday

Eurozone finance ministers have begun to gather for their fourth meeting in a week, attempting yet again to strike a deal on a package of Greek economic reforms to release a desperately-needed €7.2bn in bailout funds to Athens.

The ministers have been sent what one official termed a “feasibility blueprint” – but the Financial Times has obtained a copy and it looks very much like the version creditors annotated and sent back to Athens on Tuesday. We’ve posted a copy of the document here.

The first place to look is page three of the nine-page document, where the section on pension reforms begins. This has become the major sticking point between the two sides and, while it makes some concessions to the Greek government, it is very much in keeping with creditor demands that early retirement schemes be curtailed and the effective retirement age be raised very quickly.

Under the plan sent to finance ministers, Athens would ensure the retirement age is moved to 67 by 2022, significantly faster that Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, had sought. Originally, Athens was pushing for 2036, but Mr Tsipras’ compromise plan submitted on Monday moved that to 2025. Read more

A mother holds her child outside a migration centre in Rome last week

Brussels may be obsessed with the prospect of Grexit, and much of the focus of the two-day EU summit that starts on Thursday may be Brexit. But the issue worrying many EU diplomats going into the summit is something else entirely: migration.

For the first time, a draft conclusions sent around to national capitals on Monday (we have posted a copy here) includes language on how leaders will deal with the massive influx of refugees from North Africa. If you’ll recall, an emergency summit held in April explicitly left out any targets for numbers of refugees washing up on Italian and Greek shores that would be “relocated” in other EU countries.

Then the European Commission decided it would propose 40,000 of those refugees would be relocated and even came up with European schemes for relocation and resettlement (pdf) that divvied up how many each country would accept. National capitals were not too pleased with that.

The European Commission seems relatively happy with the new draft communiqué. The figures — 40,000 people, over two years — are still there. Likewise, the call for “rapid adoption” — perhaps at a meeting next month — of their migration proposals is stronger than some within the Berlaymont had feared.

But the conclusions do not mention the word “mandatory”, which has raised red flags since many fear that without resettlement quotas, countries will be hard pressed to avoid political pressure to keep refugees out. But it should be noted that the original proposals didn’t mention the word “mandatory”, either. Read more

Greek soldiers march in front of parliament during a military parade to mark independence

One of the oddities of Greece’s bailout programme has been that, despite five years of punishing austerity, its military budget remains amongst the highest in the EU.

Early in the crisis, the issue became controversial during a dispute over whether Athens should follow through on a contract to purchase German-built diesel submarines – a move that was criticised as a way to curry favour with Greece’s largest creditor.

More recently, the far-left government of Alexis Tsipras raised questions when it agreed to sign off on a €500m programme to upgrade five aging US-made maritime patrol aircraft.

And according to a document obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here, the issue has come up again during the current standoff between Athens and its international creditors as a way to breach the fiscal gap the two sides are currently wrestling over.

To recap, Greece’s bailout monitors have pushed Athens to make up a €1bn-€2bn annual budget shortfall by cutting public sector pensions and raising value-added taxes on some items like electricity, which Tsipras has resisted. Creditors have insisted they are open to other ideas, but argue Athens has not come back with credible alternatives.

The three-page document, circulated among creditors, shows that two of Greece’s bailout monitors – the European Commission and European Central Bank – think defence cuts would be one way to make up the difference and have suggested changes (particularly moving to a less manpower-intensive force structure, a decision several Nato allies like the US have already taken) in talks with Greek negotiators:

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Greece's Alexis Tsipras with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last week

This weekend’s fireworks over Greece’s bailout were centred on a new counterproposal submitted by Greek ministers, who flew to Brussels to turn it over by hand. As the world knows by now, senior European Commission officials – acting on behalf of all three Greek bailout monitors – rejected it out of hand.

For Brussels Blog readers who want to evaluate the proposal for themselves, we obtained a copy of the new Greek plan and have posted it here (our friends and rivals at the Greek daily Kathimerini beat us to the punch, and you can read their summary here).

The most important thing to note is that, after weeks of holding out, Athens has agreed to meet the creditors’ demands on fiscal targets for this year and next year. In 2015, they’ve agreed to a primary budget surplus – revenues minus expenses when interest on sovereign debt isn’t included – of 1 per cent of gross domestic product, and 2 per cent for 2016. That’s exactly the levels demanded by creditors in a compromise plan presented to Alexis Tsipras, Greek prime minister, nearly two weeks ago.

But creditors do not believe the underlying figures in the document support those targets. One official cited the €700m Athens proposes to save next year through cracking down on value-added tax fraud as an item that fails to hold up under scrutiny. Read more

Merkel, standing, with her finance and defence ministers in the Bundestag last month

Just when is the real deadline before which Greece has to reach a deal with its creditors to gain access to €7.2bn in bailout aid?

Its current bailout ends on June 30, and officials think that if a deal is in place by the next scheduled meeting of eurozone finance ministers, June 18, there may just be enough time for Greece to pass the necessary legislation to get the rescue disbursement before the clock runs out.

But Stefan Wagstyl, the FT’s man in Berlin, writes to point out there’s another looming deadline that could cause problems for a Greece decision, tied to the upcoming recess of the Bundestag, which must approve any aid tranche:

It could be that Greece’s real deadline is much earlier that many realise: June 14. That is the date by which German officials say Greece and its bailout monitors must complete a new agreement for the German parliament to have time to vote on it before the end of the month.

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