Euro

Dijsselbloem, left, with his predecessor Juncker after his election as eurogroup president

Spain’s decision to abstain from Monday night’s vote on Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s ascendance to the chair of the eurogroup served to highlight the almost complete dominance of the EU’s triple-A countries in securing top economic jobs in the eurozone.

If we include France and Austria (both of which were downgraded last year by Standard & Poor’s, but retain triple-A ratings from Fitch), the six creditor countries have swept nearly every big opening save the European Central Bank presidency – which was secured by Italian Mario Draghi only after Axel Weber, then head of the German Bundesbank, unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy.

“The Dutch minister seem to us an appropriate person, but fundamentally, it’s a matter of institutional calculations,” Luis de Guindos, the Spanish finance minister, said today in explaining Madrid’s abstention. “Spain has taken a position in regards to a situation that it considers is unjust, which is the representation to the European institutions.”

Madrid has a particular reason to complain, since it has been completely shut out of the top jobs after losing a Spaniard on the ECB’s executive board last year, despite being the euroszone’s fourth largest economy. Dijsselbloem said he has invited De Guindos to The Hague to discuss the issue. The Spaniard has accepted, officials said.

After the jump, a run-down of the triple-A’s recent winning streak: Read more

Ireland's Kenny, right, with European Commission chief Barroso at start of the Irish EU presidency.

Ireland appears to be taking advantage of the comparatively positive sentiment in the eurozone that has marked the start of the year by moving back into the bond markets in a major way.

Last week, Dublin raised €2.5bn by issuing additional five-year government bonds, and then days later was able to convince private investors to buy €1bn in debt it holds in one of the largest banks nationalised at the peak of its banking crisis. This morning, the government was at it again, announcing a €500m auction in short-term t-bills will take place tomorrow.

Despite the winning streak, there’s still a lot of nervousness in official circles about whether Ireland can fully emerge from its bailout when its €67.5bn in rescue loans run out in November. All this has led to a debate in Dublin about whether Ireland should seek additional aid, such as a line of credit from the International Monetary Fund or the EU – which would be backed by the European Central Bank’s new limitless bond-buying programme – to provide a backstop to new Irish bonds.

The Irish website TheStory.ie got its hands on the new European Commission report on the Irish bailout, which makes clear on page 44 that Dublin is in discussions with the troika about whether the ECB’s bond-buying programme – known as Outright Monetary Transactions – can be accessed: Read more

Enda Kenny, Ireland's prime minister, during a November EU summit in Brussels

One of the hardest things about keeping on top of the eurozone crisis is the tendency for issues once regarded as done and dusted to re-emerge months later as undecided. In the new year, there are two places where this revisionism will be thrust back into the limelight: Cyprus and Ireland.

In Cyprus, two hard-and-fast principles, long believed sacrosanct, will be tested. The first is eurozone leaders’ long-held insistence that Greece is “unique”, in that it would be the only eurozone country where private holders of sovereign debt would be defaulted on.

With Cyprus’s bailout likely to double the country’s debt levels, officials say debt relief must come from somewhere or Nicosia faces a burden rivalling Greece’s – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 190 per cent of economic output. Haircuts for private bondholders could be one option to lower that, though for the time being Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing head of the eurogroup of finance ministers, insists it’s off the table.

Which takes us to controversial option two: wiping out senior creditors in Cypriot banks. If creditors don’t need to be repaid, than the size of the bailout can be much smaller. This may appear more palatable to eurozone leaders – after all, about €12bn of the €17.5bn in bailout funding is need to recapitalise Cyprus’s collapsing banking sector – but it would also break unspoken rules. Read more

Berlusconi, right, hands over ceremonial bell to Monti, marking the transfer of power last year.

With Silvio Berlusconi’s vow to run again for prime minster in February’s snap elections on an avowedly anti-German and anti-austerity platform, Italian attitudes towards Berlin and the EU’s handling of the eurozone crisis are suddenly back on the front burner.

Fortuitously, we just completed one of our regular FT/Harris polls, which surveyed 1,000 adults in the EU’s five biggest countries – including Italy– in November. And it’s no wonder Berlusconi believes his new attacks will be receptive at home: Italian attitudes against Germany and austerity are hardening.

We’ve posted the 16-page report with the complete results here for anyone who wants to wade through them, but it’s worth highlighting the Italian findings. Fully 83 per cent of those polled believe Germany’s influence in the EU is “too strong” – the same total as Spaniards, but a stunning jump since October 2011 when only 53 per cent of Italians felt that way. Read more

Van Rompuy, left, has set out a different vision of common eurozone debt than Barroso, right.

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, published the latest iteration of his plan to overhaul the eurozone this morning, just a week after his counterpart across the Rue de la Loi, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, offered his own blueprint.

Van Rompuy’s 14-page outline includes many of the ideas he’s been proffering since October, including a requirement that all eurozone countries engage in “contractual arrangements” with Brussels, committing them to economic reform plans, and the creation of a eurozone budget. Barroso’s plan has similar elements.

But it’s worth noting where Barroso and Van Rompuy differ, because it could have major implications for the direction the eurozone heads in the coming months. And the differences are perhaps nowhere more evident than on one of the issues that has bedevilled the eurozone since the outset of the crisis: so-called “eurobonds”.

 Read more

Juncker, right, with potential successor Pierre Moscovici, France's finance minister

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who heads the eurogroup of finance ministers, set off another round of speculation about his potential successor Monday night when he reiterated that he wanted to step down from the job either by the end of the year or early next year.

Senior officials who should know about leading candidates insist nobody has emerged as a clear front-runner to take over the post, despite Juncker’s Shermanesque declaration. But that hasn’t stopped the guessing game. The criteria are unhelpfully vague. The latest EU treaty basically says that anyone with a pulse can hold the job:

The Ministers of the Member States whose currency is the euro shall elect a president for two and a half years, by a majority of those Member States.

But after two days of gossiping in the halls, here is the sum total of what Brussels Blog has gleaned on the topic, boiled down to three groups of candidates. Read more

Van Rompuy is, once again, asking summiteers to endorse the idea in draft conclusions.

When José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, unveiled his blueprint for the future of the eurozone last week, aides acknowledged it contained some blue-sky ideas that were meant to provoke debate as much as set firm policies.

But EU presidents and prime ministers may be asked to endorse some of its more controversial ideas if a leaked copy of the communiqué for next week’s EU summit is any indication – including a plan to have all eurozone countries sign “contractual” agreements with Brussels akin to the detailed reform plans currently required only of bailout countries. We’ve posted a copy of the draft, dated Monday, here.

The idea of the Brussels contracts was originally advocated by the summit’s chair, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, ahead of October’s gathering. But in the end, summiteers only agreed that such a plan should be “explored”Read more

Cyprus finance minister Vasos Shiarly, left, with EU economics chief Olli Rehn.

With the Greek government announcing the details of its highly-anticipated debt buyback programme this morning, there really is only one major agenda item offering any suspense at tonight’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels: Cyprus.

Brussels Blog has got its hands on the draft deal between Nicosia and the “troika” of international lenders (with the words “contains sensitive information, not for further distribution” on top of each of its 29 pages) that, for the first time, lays out in minute detail just what the Cypriots are being asked to do in return for bailout cash. We’ve posted a copy here.

Senior Cypriot and eurozone officials have cautioned that the whole deal cannot be completed until Pimco, the California-based investment firm, finishes a complete review of the teetering Cypriot banking sector. But the Memorandum of Understanding pencils in €10bn to recapitalise banks.

Considering Cyprus’ entire economy is only €18bn, that’s a whopping sum, equivalent to 56% of gross domestic product – much higher than either the Irish or Spanish bank bailouts.

Which raises a problem: Cypriot sovereign debt is already at almost 90 per cent of GDP. The bank rescue, plus additional cash that will be lent to run the Cypriot government, will take that debt to levels the International Monetary Fund has, in the past, argued is unsustainableRead more

IMF chief Christine Lagarde arrives at Monday's eurogroup meeting where Greek deal was struck.

When eurozone finance minsters announced their long-delayed deal to overhaul Greece’s second bailout early Tuesday morning, there was much they didn’t disclose.

The most glaring was how big a highly-touted bond buyback programme would be, a question dodged repeatedly at a post-deal news conference. But there were other things that were left out of a two-page statement summing up the deal, including how much the European Central Bank was making on its Greek bond holdings, profits that will be returned to Athens as part of the agreement.

It turns out, those were not the only – or even the biggest – unanswered questions left after the early-morning deal. As we report in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, ministers failed to find enough debt relief measures to get to the purported Greek debt target of 124 per cent of economic output by 2020, far above the 120 per cent target set in February.

In reporting our story, we relied heavily on a leaked chart that we got our hands on (which we’ve linked to here) that lays out in great detail the assumptions built into the new programme. A quick review of the chart comes after the jump… Read more

Germany's Schäuble and France's Moscovici after the 1st attempt this month to reach a Greek deal.

Eurozone finance ministers have begun arriving at the EU’s summit building in Brussels for their third meeting in two weeks to try come up with a deal to get Greece’s overweening debt levels back down to levels that can credibly be considered sustainable.

For those who need a reminder of where the talks stand, we offer a handy official chart we got our hands on (see it here) which shows just how big the debt gap is – a gap that must be closed to finalise the overhauled programme and release the long-delayed €31.3bn in bailout assistance.

The key thing to remember is the last time the eurozone revamped the Greek programme in February, they agreed that it would return Athens to a debt level of 120 per cent of economic output by 2020. This has become a de facto benchmark.

As the chart shows, without any debt relief, Greece’s debt is now expected to be at 144 per cent by 2020 and the entire debate today (and possibly tonight) will be on who will give up some share of Greek debt repayments to bring that down. Read more

Greek finance minister Stournaras, left, and prime minister Samaras during last night's debate.

Tonight’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers was, as recently as a week ago, thought to be the final bit of heavy lifting needed to complete the overhaul of Greece’s second bailout. After all, Athens has done what it promised: it passed €13.5bn of new austerity measures on Wednesday and the 2013 budget last night.

But EU officials now acknowledge that the Brussels meeting of the so-called “eurogroup” will not make any final decisions on Greece amid continued debate over how much debt relief Athens needs – and how fast it should come. That means a long-delayed €31.3bn aid payment will be delayed yet again.

One EU official said that despite hopes, the key part of a highly-anticipated report from international monitors – known as the “troika report” because it is compiled by the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission – will not be ready in time for tonight’s meeting: the debt sustainability analysis, which remains a point of contention. Read more

Geithner, left, has been in frequent touch with ECB's Draghi and his predecessor, Trichet.

A joint election party co-hosted by Democrats and Republicans Abroad at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels this evening is scheduled to go until 3am in anticipation of a long night ahead for any eurocrats waiting to get first word on who has won the US presidential contest.

Looking for something to do in the interim? For his part, French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, scoured the recently-released calendars of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to find out which of the American’s EU counterparts he talked to most frequently since the eurozone crisis broke nearly three years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by far his most frequent phone calls have gone to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Pisani-Ferry counts 114 contacts with either IMF chief Christine Lagarde or her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their deputies.

What is a surprise is that Geithner’s most frequent interlocutor on this side of the Atlantic has not been in Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Instead, it was Frankfurt, where he contacted European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, 58 times in the 30 months examined. Read more

Rajoy is still angered by Spain's snubbing during Mersch's selection earlier this year.

If you thought the long, drawn-out saga of Yves Mersch’s nomination to a seat on the European Central Bank’s powerful executive board could not get any stranger, think again.

The Spanish government this morning informed Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, that it objected to the fast-track “written procedure” Van Rompuy had begun in order to get Mersch finally seated in the job. The procedure – which was begun after the European Parliament refused to sign off on the nomination last month – was due to end today, making it possible for Mersch to take the long-empty seat by November 15.

But the Spanish veto means Mersch now can’t go through and the appointment battle, which has dragged on for nearly ten months, will have to be taken up by the EU’s presidents and prime ministers when they summit in Brussels later this month.

The question gripping the Brussels chattering classes now is: Why? Was Madrid trying to fire a warning shot across the bow of the ECB and Berlin, which have been ratcheting up the pressure over the conditions of a long-expected Spanish rescue programme? Senior officials insist the real reason is far more prosaic. Read more

Germany's Angela Merkel, left, with Greece's Antonis Samaras during her Athens visit.

With Athens and the so-called “troika” of international lenders close to a deal on an overhauled bailout that would extend the programme by two years, the focus today shifts to Brussels, where talks begin on round two of the revised Greek rescue: how to pay for it.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, those talks will focus on how to fill a new financing gap of between €16bn-€18bn through 2016.

Although officials have toyed with a bond buyback programme – which would have reduced Greek financing needs by purchasing debt at current distressed prices and retiring the bonds – it now looks like they’re going to focus instead on what they’ve done in the past: lowering rates on bailout loans even further to scrape together extra money. Currently, Greece borrows at 1.5 per cent more than the cost of the cash to lenders. So there’s room to cut. Read more

Greek protesters prepare for Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit this morning in central Athens.

Since coming a surprise second in June’s Greek elections, Syriza, the radical left-wing coalition, can point to at least one (admittedly modest) success in addressing the country’s monstrous unemployment problem: It has found a job for Aphrodite Babassi.

Babassi, a Syriza supporter who appeared in the FT’s pages in May, had been jobless for three years before she took a post in July on the staff of one of the party’s new members of parliament, Afrodite Stapouli, researching science policy.

We bumped into Babassi, 27, at Syntagma Square on Monday night, where – as she prepared to protest against the pending visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – she recalled the joy of receiving her first pay check. 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

With the European Commission holding its final summer meeting on Wednesday, Brussels goes on holiday in earnest starting next week, with nothing on the formal EU calendar until a meeting of European affairs ministers in Cyprus on August 29.

But if whispers in the hallways are any indication, veterans of the eurozone crisis remain traumatised by last August, when some inopportune comments by then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi shook Europe from its summer slumber. Indeed, Maria Fekter, Austria’s gabby finance minister, has already speculated on the need for an emergency August summit.

Herewith, the Brussels Blog posts its completely unscientific odds on which of the eurozone’s smouldering crisis embers could reignite into an out-of-control summer wildfire, forcing cancelled hotel bookings and return trips to ZaventemRead more

Ireland's Enda Kenny, right, with German counterpart Angela Merkel at the EU summit.

It’s been a good week for Ireland.

Not only has last week’s EU summit deal on bank recaptalisation pushed benchmark borrowing rates down to pre-bailout levels (today they were trending down again, to 6.2 per cent, lower than even Spain’s). But it has also enabled Dublin to venture out on the open market for the first time in two years: tomorrow, it will sell €500m in 3-year bills. Small, but a highly-symbolic turning point nonetheless.

Despite the positive market reaction, there is a decent amount of debate in the hallways in Brussels about what, exactly, the deal means for Ireland. As a reminder, eurozone officials agreed to change the rules of future bank bailouts so that the €500bn eurozone rescue fund can inject cash right into struggling banks, something specifically intended for Spain’s upcoming €100bn EU bank rescue.

When Ireland was bailed out, all such money had to be funnelled through the state, meaning it added to Dublin’s ballooning national debt. During the late-night negotiations, Irish officials – aided by backing from the European Central Bank’s Jörg Asmussen and Klaus Regling, head of the bailout fund – were able to insert language saying Ireland would be considered for similar treatment.

Since Ireland has spent about €64bn on shoring up its collapsed banking system, and its overall debt level now stands at about €185bn, moving those debts off its books would surely be the “game changer” touted by Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minster. But how much of that debt could realistically be moved off Dublin’s books? Read more