Fiscal policy

Peter Spiegel

Welcome to Friday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Spain's Mariano Rajoy, right, with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president

Next to Ireland, there have been few eurozone countries that have been touted as austerity success stories more often than Spain. Under the government of Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right prime minister who is still clinging onto office after indecisive elections in December, the country went through a series of wrenching reform programmes and came out the other side with relatively robust growth. In February, the European Commission said Spain’s economic output had grown 3.2 per cent last year, double the eurozone average.

But one thing Madrid can’t seem to do is get a handle on is its budget deficit. Originally, the Spanish government was supposed to get its deficit back below the EU’s ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2013. When it became clear at the height of the eurozone crisis that was impossible, the deadline got extended by a year. But a year later, Madrid had made so little progress that it got a further two-year extension, to 2016. It appears things have gotten no better over those two years, however: yesterday, Spain’s national statistics office announced that the country’s 2015 deficit was nearly 5.2 per cent – even higher than Brussels estimated back in February. Read more

Jim Brunsden

This is the Monday edition of our Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Schäuble, right, with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim at the G20 in Shanghai this weekend

Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, last week called for leading economies to “go bold” in tackling the looming threat of a global slowdown, saying that “there has to be action on all fronts.” Instead, a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations that concluded at the weekend produced an 11-point statement that was notable as much for what wasn’t in it as for what was.

Ever the budgetary hawk, Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble – under pressure at home to maintain a balanced budget in the face of huge new spending demands thanks to the refugee crisis – moved quickly at the meeting in Shanghai to bury any idea that the G20 might agree on a coordinated stimulus package through greater public spending. Instead, the communiqué ministers adopted prescribes a medicine that’s much more palatable to Mr Schäuble but politically difficult to administer: pushing ahead with labour-market and competitiveness reforms.

Given Berlin’s struggles within the eurozone to repel repeated pushes from Italy, Portugal, and most recently Spain, for more flexibility in the bloc’s budget rules, the last thing Mr Schäuble wanted was for the most powerful nations on earth to signal that it’s time to open the purse strings. “Thinking about further stimulus just distracts from the real task at hand,” Mr Schäuble said. “If you want the real economy to grow there are no shortcuts without reforms.” Read more

Jim Brunsden

It’s rare for any government minister to ever admit that a task is beyond them. So it was notable in the European Parliament today when Jeroen Dijsselbloem acknowledged that he’s often at a loss explaining the EU’s budget rules.

Dijsselbloem – who is currently politically triple-hatted as the Dutch finance minister, president of the eurogroup of 17 eurozone finance ministers, and chair of the EU’s council of 28 finance ministers – was explaining to MEPs why he is behind a drive to streamline the eurozone’s budget rules when he admitted he didn’t always know how to explain them himself.

“Why is simplifying our rules important? Because people don’t understand any more what we are doing,” he said. “At least I have a lot of problems explaining to people how our budgetary rules, our fiscal rules work.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

Portugal's new finance minister, Mario Centeno

The complicated procedure and baffling code words that are part of the European Commission’s annual evaluation of eurozone budgets can sometimes make it seem like Brussels is intentionally obfuscating their views on national budgets.

But under the EU’s crisis-era rules, all spending plans must be submitted for approval by the commission’s economics directorate before they can be sent to national parliaments for consideration – one of the most powerful levers Brussels now had in its battle to get debt and deficits in the eurozone back under control.

That’s why the letter sent to the Portuguese finance ministry this week, filled with jargon and confusing benchmarks, is worth taking a look at. We got our hands on the letter and have posted it here.

Under EU rules, eurozone governments are supposed to submit their budget for review by mid-October. But that happened to coincide with last year’s Portuguese parliamentary elections, held October 6, which delayed Lisbon’s submission for months – nearly four months, to be exact. Its 2016 budget was only sent to Brussels last Friday. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Mr Moscovici, right, chats with Mr Juncker. He will present the new tax measures next week.

Next week, the European Commission will take its latest step in its ongoing quest to move beyond the LuxLeaks corporate tax avoidance scandal that has periodically dogged President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s tax policy chief, is set to unveil a flurry of proposals aimed at tackling so-called base erosion and profit shifting: in other words the aggressive tactics used by multinationals to shrink their tax bills by as much as possible. This morning, we’ve done a story about the new proposals, which we obtained. But we’ve also now posted them here for others to read.

The so-called LuxLeaks revelations emerged shortly after Mr Juncker became commission president in November 2014, and dogged his early days in office. They documented how during his two decades as Luxembourg prime minister, up to 340 multinational companies, ranging from Ikea to Pepsi, funnelled profits through the tiny country to lower their tax bills to as little as 1 per cent.

The commission has embarked on a wave of regulatory changes to close loopholes, including making a renewed push for the longstanding EU goal of having a common consolidated corporate tax base for companies. It is also pursuing high profile competition cases against tax deals Luxembourg and others struck with multinationals such as Apple, Amazon and Fiat.

Most recently, the European Commission ordered Belgium to recoup about €700m from 35 multinational companies that have benefited from the country’s generous fiscal incentive scheme.

Mr Moscovici’s plans, which are outlined in a 13-page summary posted here, enshrine international agreements reached by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development into EU law, and in some cases go even further – notably when it comes to restricting the ability of companies to shift of profits from parent companies to lightly taxed subsidiaries. Read more

Christian Oliver

Johan Van Overtveldt, Belgium's finance minister, has vowed to fight Vestager

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, is regularly in the headlines for her corporate tax battles with big US companies: Google, Amazon, Apple and now McDonald’s. But don’t overlook her investigation into Belgium’s tax perks scheme for multinationals. A verdict appears to be imminent, and the repercussions will be felt well beyond the country of 11m.

Earlier this week, Johan Van Overtveldt, finance minister, told the De Standaard daily that Belgium was “highly likely” to have to claw back €700m from companies that have benefited from Belgium’s special tax incentives package.

Van Overtveldt is promising to resist Vestager’s tax justice campaign, but she isn’t a commissioner to change her mind too quickly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a cabinet meeting Sunday night in the Greek parliament

There has been lots of analysis on a new list of economic reforms that the Greek government sent to its bailout monitors over the weekend, including this incredibly comprehensive report from the Athens-based analytical website Macropolis.

But before everyone goes concluding that this is the final list that eurozone creditors will rule on, remember: nothing has been submitted yet to the eurogroup – the committee of 19 eurozone finance ministers that will ultimately rule on whether the reforms are sufficient to unlock the remaining €7.2bn in bailout funds Athens desperately needs.

And tonight’s “deadline” for bailout monitors to approve a submission, and then forward it onto the eurogroup, is nothing more than a self-imposed one; in reality, there is no deadline other than the date when Athens eventually runs out of cash.

People on both sides of the negotiations say that despite three days of talks, the list is not comprehensive as yet. “There was no such thing as an original list,” insists an official from one of the bailout monitoring institutions. “There were contributions, tables, pieces of paper.”

Indeed, on the Greek side, some involved in the discussions say a fuller, longer, and more detailed document is in the works. They argue the issue is not, as many among the bailout monitors claim, a lack of detail. The issue is getting all the details – some 72 reforms, according to one person in the Athens camp – into a well-organised document, in English, without mistakes in substance or politics. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks before the Greek parliament on Tuesday

One of the unmentioned problems looming over the current Greece standoff is the fact that Athens will need a third bailout, regardless of what happens in a week’s worth of Brussels meetings that start on Wednesday. Eurozone officials say that both Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, and his boss, Alexis Tsipras, have acknowledged that in private meetings.

Just four months ago, it appeared that Athens wouldn’t need another full-scale EU bailout and would be given a line of credit instead. That’s because at the time it appeared the Greek government was making progress in convincing private credit markets to fund its fiscal needs. That is no longer the case.

Eurozone officials are understandably reluctant to estimate the size of another Greek bailout – and not just for political reasons. Trying to guess how much Athens will need without digging through Greece’s books is a fraught affair, especially since tax revenues have reportedly begun to dry up and it’s been months since the troika did their last full-scale analysis.

But that shouldn’t prevent Brussels Blog from doing some spit-balling. According to a very quick-and-dirty back-of-the envelope estimate, a third Greek bailout could run as much as €37.8bn if Varoufakis’ plans are adopted in full. Are Greece’s 18 eurozone partners prepared to cough up that kind of money in the current environment? Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

Peter Spiegel

Juncker delivers his acceptance speech Friday at the EPP's party congress in Dublin

By Vincent Boland in Dublin

It is one of the biggest events in the European political calendar. The pre-European parliament election congress of the centre-right European People’s party, which concluded Friday in Dublin, was notable for several things. But three in particular stand out.

The first is that the congress – well organised, held at the new(ish) Dublin Convention Centre, and hosted by Fine Gael, the leading party in Ireland’s coalition government – was a triumph for Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister). He managed to both look and sound statesmanlike.

Moreover, Kenny’s rebuttal of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, will have done his domestic poll ratings no harm at all. Barroso, an EPP member who attended the congress, lashed out at critics of his handling of the eurozone crisis, blaming “panic in the financial markets” and too much self-imposed austerity for the pain being felt across the eurozone economy. Read more

Do last week’s German constitutional court ruling lambasting – but failing to overturn – the European Central Bank’s crisis-fighting bond-buying programme and today’s political upheaval in Italy have anything in common?

In the view of many ECB critics, particularly in Berlin, the two are not only related, but one may have caused the other. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Rehn, left, with President José Manuel Barroso at Wednesday's press conference

It may have appeared that Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, today was siding with Washington in the going transatlantic tussle over Germany’s current account surplus by launching an inquiry into whether the surplus was harming growth in the rest of Europe.

But Rehn went out of his way to make clear that he was no fan of the US Treasury department report that pushed the dispute into overdrive last month.

Speaking at a press conference announcing the European Commission’s decision to launch the “in-depth review” of Germany’s surplus, Rehn said the US Treasury’s report was “to my taste somewhat simplified and too straight forward”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Did tight-fisted budget policies in Germany help make the eurozone crisis deeper and more difficult for struggling bailout countries like Greece and Portugal?

That appears to be the conclusions of a study by a top European Commission economist that was published online Monday – but then quickly taken down by EU officials.

Our eagle-eyed friend and rival Nikos Chrysoloras, Brussels correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini, was able to download the report and note its findings before the link went dark (Nikos kindly provided Brussels Blog a copy, which we’ve posted here).

Shortly after being contacted by Brussels Blog, officials said they would republish the 28-page study, titled “Fiscal consolidation and spillovers in the Euro area periphery and core”, once a few charts were fixed. And as Brussels Blog was writing this post, it was indeed republished here.

Still, the paper’s day-long disappearance looks suspicious given the hard-hitting nature of its findings. For some, they may not be surprising. Many economists have argued that it was the simultaneous austerity undertaken by nearly all eurozone countries over the course of the crisis that pushed the bloc into a deeper recession than predicted, hitting Greece and other weak economies particularly hard.

But coming from the European Commission’s economic and financial affairs directorate – which was responsible for helping administer Greek and Portuguese bailouts as well as provide semi-mandatory policy advice to other eurozone economies – the criticism of Berlin is unexpected, to say the least. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras, centre, holds a cabinet meeting this week.

Just how off track is Greece’s €172bn second bailout? When the FT reported that a new €3bn-€4bn financing gap had opened up in the programme, EU and International Monetary Fund officials went out of their way to insist there wasn’t a gap at all.

“There is no financial gap. The programme is fully financed for at least another year, so there is no problem, on the premise that we reach a final agreement on the review in July,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs the eurogroup.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice weighed in with a written statement: “If the review is concluded by the end of July 2013, as expected, no financing problems will arise because the program is financed till end-July 2014.”

Notice the caveats, however. Both Dijsselbleom and Rice say there won’t be a shortfall – as long as the IMF is able to distribute its next €1.8bn aid tranche before the end of July. Why? Because of the new financing gap, which means the Greek programme essentially runs out of money in July 2014. The IMF must have certainty that Greece is fully financed for 12 months or it can’t release its cash, so after July, it must suspend its payments. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho addresses the nation Sunday on Portugal's faltering bailout.

Although Cyprus has pushed its way back into the news, the main event at Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Dublin is expected to be a decision on whether to give Ireland and Portugal more time to pay off their EU bailout loans.

We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the 12-page options paper prepared for the ministers by the so-called “troika” of international lenders – European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and staff of the eurozone’s €440bn bailout fund, and have posted it here. The document contains five different options: extend the payment schedule a few months; by 2.5 years; 5 years; 10 years or more; or a compromise of 7 years.

As we reported earlier in the week, the debate is now centred on the document’s recommended option, the 7-year extension plan, though there are still reservations in Berlin about moving forward.

Beyond the options themselves, however, the document contains a very revealing analysis on the state of Portugal’s €78bn bailout, which has recently suffered some setbacks. As one official who will participate in Friday’s meeting put it, the topic of Portugal will be “more exciting than would have been a week ago”.

Although the document doesn’t address it directly, it makes clear that Portugal will have a very hard time avoiding a second bailout, since its financing needs in 2014 and 2015 – its first years after bailout funding runs out in July 2014 – will be substantially higher than they were during the pre-crisis period. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Monti, right, and Hollande, centre, with Belgium's Elio Di Rupo during Day 1 of the summit

For all the pre-summit posturing over the eurozone’s increasingly controversial austerity-led crisis response, participants said the EU summit’s first-day session on Europe’s economy was a staid affair with almost no real debate over whether EU policy was on the wrong track.

Indeed, the summit’s communiqué, issued after the summit broke at about 10:30pm, was almost identical to early drafts circulated late last week, even though some predicted a tense discussion over its advocacy for more targeted government spending.

Instead, a different theme appeared to emerge from several leaders in the wake of the thumping taken by Mario Monti, the outgoing Italian prime minister who implemented many of the Brussels-recommended reforms, in last month’s elections: EU policies are still correct, they’re just taking longer than expected to produce results.

“The period Mario Monti was prime minister was a very brief one,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, when asked of the lessons of the Italian vote. “Adopting reforms and the reforms taking effect, there’s a period of time for the benefits to be reaped.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

Nicos Anastadiades, Cyprus' president, talks to reporters in Brussels ahead of the EU summit.

One of the first leaders to arrive at the pre-summit gatherings of centre-right leaders was Nicos Anastadiades. In brief remarks to reporters in English, he said he hoped a Cypriot bailout deal could be reached at a meeting of finance ministers Friday night.

“We’re doing our best to reach a fair solution and agreement,” he said. “I hope everyone is going to be fair.” Read more

James Fontanella-Khan

Finland’s prime minister Jyrki Katainen is standing firm. As he arrived in Brussels on Thursday the 41-year-old centre-right leader made it clear Europe had to maintain the tough austerity course if it wanted to survive.

In a thinly veiled jibe at Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who criticised the pro-austerity policies set by the European Commission’s economic chief and fellow Finn Olli Rehn, Katainen said that the debate around austerity versus growth might have academic value, but it has little value for common people.

“There are no shortcuts to creating new jobs and growth in a sustainable manner. Structural reforms might not bear fruit overnight, but are the best sustainable economic stimulus. Accumulating excessive debt is not,” said Katainen.

He added: “The future of our common currency can be guaranteed only if each member state keeps its fiscal house in order and takes the jointly agreed rules seriously.”

After the jump, you can find the Finnish leader’s full remarks: Read more

Peter Spiegel

Germany's Angela Merkel at Thursday's cabinet meeting, where new budget targets were decided.

After last month’s tension-filled EU summit – an all-night affair to agree the EU’s €960bn seven-year budget – the two-day gathering beginning today is expected to pale by comparison to a considerable degree. “A bit boring is not a bad thing on this occasion,” said one senior diplomat involved in pre-summit negotiations.

Although Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán is expected to address the international press today following his government’s controversial passage of constitutional amendments which critics claim may violate the rule of law, the only real issue that could potentially generate much heat inside the gathering is the ongoing austerity versus growth debate that has been swirling since last month’s Italian elections.

There has already been some shadow boxing on the issue between France’s François Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel ahead of the summit – with Hollande making the case for France to get a one-year pass on its EU deficit targets, while Merkel conspicuously announcing her own intention to get to a balanced budget a year earlier than required. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Rehn's remarks in London last month appear to be the crux of the dispute with Krugman.

Just when you thought the war of words between Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and European Commission economic chief Olli Rehn had died down, the normally level-headed Finn has hit back at the Princeton academic in an interview with his home country’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.

In the interview, Rehn in essence accuses Krugman of lying, insisting the economist criticised him for things he never actually said. “Krugman put words in my mouth that would be termed in the Finnish parliament a ‘modified truth’,” Rehn said in the interview. The newspaper helpfully notes that “modified truth” is the Finnish parliament’s polite terminology for lying.

Rehn also takes a little dig at Krugman’s use of Monty Python to defend himself. After a deluge of attacks from European Commission officials last week, Krugman noted he never made personal attacks on Rehn – only on his policies – writing: “I never asserted that Mr Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries.”

To the uninitiated, the line is from a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a French soldier played by John Cleese taunts King Arthur, played by the late Graham Chapman, with those very words.

“We should perhaps be grateful to Mr Krugman for his generosity in promising at least not to compare my recently-deceased mother to a hamster,” Rehn deadpanned in the interview. Read more