banking union

German finance miniser Wolfgang Schäuble with Finland's Jutta Urpilainen at Monday's eurogroup

The German finance ministry is on the brink of an extraordinary achievement. Like many power shifts within the EU, it is happily hidden behind the most fiendish jargon. But if all goes to plan, Berlin is securing something rare and coveted in Brussels: the effective power to block future EU banking regulation.

Put another way, it is quietly resetting the ground rules of the single market in financial services without the need for treaty change or a referendum or a big speech. Take note David Cameron.

How has Berlin managed it? It is all concealed in the thicket of legal arguments over establishing Europe’s €55bn bank rescue fund via an intergovernmental agreement, rather than through the EU’s normal “community method”, where majority (or at least qualified majority) rules.

To translate: at German behest, the rules for pooling banking union rescue funds are laid out in a side-deal between governments, rather than under legislation agreed between EU member states and European parliament. Such intergovernmental pacts are allowed; remember the fiscal compact? But they are not supposed to change or impact the EU’s common rulebook, outlined in the EU treaties. 

Workers shutter a branch of Laiki Bank, which was closed under Cyprus' €10bn bailout last year

For those not following every twist and turn in the EU’s debate over how to bail out failing banks, it may come as a bit of a surprise that finance ministers are still fighting over who pays for a collapsed financial institution given the deal struck in December on this very issue.

But a three-page “issues note” sent to national capitals this week ahead of EU finance ministers’ meetings on Monday and Tuesday – obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here – makes clear that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about a new EU-wide bank rescue fund to pay for such bailouts. And it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the unanswered questions centre around one thing: money. 

ECB chief Mario Draghi, left, with eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem at last night's meeting

Whenever it comes to eurozone backstops, it usually pays to be beware of fine print and Germans bearing gifts.

Eurozone finance ministers reached a tentative agreement in the early hours of this morning that is significant in this sense: it paves the way for a final deal on a common resolution system for the banking union.

In terms of substance, the big breakthrough is a commitment to establish a common backstop — by 2025 at the latest — that will provide taxpayer support to the bank resolution system, should its resources be overwhelmed in a crisis.

Germany was staunchly opposed so it represents an important concession to Italy, France and the European Commission. What it does not do, however, is detail what form that backstop should take — that is left open. And they have a decade to fight over what the commitment actually entails. 

Wolfgang Schäuble, centre, last week with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, right, and Dutch aide Hans Vijlbrief

EU finance ministers start descending on Brussels this evening for what is expected to be at least two days of marathon negotiations over the second leg of the EU’s nascent banking union: a new agency to deal with failing banks and an accompanying rescue fund to recapitalise them or wind them down.

Senior EU officials have begun to worry that, despite this being the second such gathering in as many weeks, differences are still so significant that a deal may not get done by the time the ministers’ bosses – the EU’s presidents and prime ministers – arrive in Brussels Thursday for their own end-of-the-year summit.

But if it falls to them, officials say the heads of government are unlikely to make final decisions on the resolution system at their two-day summit – and would only set new political parameters for their finance ministers, who might be forced to come back to Brussels over the winter holiday. Joy to the world.

So just where are the differences? The Lithuanians, as holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, helpfully produced a 19-page note for all delegations heading into tonight’s start of the talks, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and posted here. A summary on its main points after the jump. 

Sweden's Borg, centre, during last night's meeting, where he sparred with his Dutch counterpart

It’s become something of a routine in the EU’s ongoing effort to build a “banking union” that finance ministers try to come to a deal at their normal Brussels meetings – only to fail and call a special emergency session at the 11th hour before a crucial summit.

It happened last December when ministers held a last-minute emergency meeting to agree a new EU supervisor for all eurozone banks; it happened again in June to get to a deal on rules for how much creditors should lose when a bank fails. After yesterday’s 15-hour marathon on a new EU bank resolution authority, ministers will now have one last shot next Wednesday before the last EU summit of the year begins the next day.

The hold-up this time is a dispute over how a new EU-wide bank rescue fund should function. And if anyone is looking for evidence of how much work still needs to be done, consider these two documents which were circulated among finance ministers late last night – one here outlining an emergency backup to the fund and another here on a new treaty to set up the fund. Both are almost completely substance free, meaning a lot must be done before Wednesday. 

After two sets of late-night negotiations that stretched into early morning, EU finance ministers finally reached a deal Thursday on new bail-out rules for European banks. A quick primer:

Is the deal a big step towards a banking union? It is definitely progress. But this is no leap towards centralisation. The bank bailout blueprint was proposed even before a eurozone banking union was endorsed by EU leaders last year. It is more a political pre-condition for deeper financial integration. The reform frames the powers of EU national authorities in handling bank failures and applies to euro and non-euro countries.

The impetus primarily came from the global regulatory response to the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008. These reforms are supposed to answer the “too big to fail” question, readying the defences for the next crisis and introducing powers to make creditors shoulder the costs of bank collapse, rather than taxpayers. It just turned out the reforms were shaped in the middle of a European banking crisis, rather than in the wake of the US one.

 

EU financial services chief Michel Barnier takes questions on the bank bail-in debate Wednesday

Call it the Cinderella rule: complex bank reforms cannot be agreed in Brussels until after midnight. So it will be this evening as ministers reconvene to negotiate laws on how to shut down failing banks, a deal that eluded them in the early hours of Saturday morning. (Though it should be noted negotiators for the Irish government, holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, are telling interlocutors they hope to be at the pub before midnight.)

The talks don’t start in earnest until after 7pm but a compromise text is circulating. It is the opening shot from the Irish to break the impasse. Officials are more optimistic about a deal this time. Fellow Brussels Blogger Peter Spiegel has written extensively on the context of the negotiations already, so this blog offers a short summary of the main changes for those who have followed the talks:

 

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. 

After months of deliberation and some not-so-private sparring with Berlin, the European Commission has pretty much anointed who it wants to be the all-powerful bank bailout and clean-up authority for Europe’s banking union: the European Commission.

This (somewhat predictable) conclusion to its internal policymaking journey is outlined in a paper, seen by the Financial Times, which was distributed to commissioners ahead of their weekly college debate on Wednesday.

There is no sign of Brussels bowing to pressure from Berlin. At the heart of the Commission’s proposed system is a powerful central authority, which has access to a single bailout fund and the clout to shut down a bank even against the wishes of its home state’s government. Brussels wants it operating by 2015.

What about those German concerns that this would breach the EU treaties? Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner responsible for financial issues, concedes in the paper that “only an EU institution” has the legal authority to take important decisions with European effect. Given there is no legal basis to give the European Central Bank this role, the Commission concludes that the only option is to anoint itself as the top resolution authority. 

Predicting what Germany will do in a negotiation is fast becoming the Brussels equivalent of soothsaying. Tuesday’s tetchy banking union talks set off yet another diplomatic stampede to consult the ouija boards, throwing canes and tarot cards in order to find out what Berlin really wants.

Were the strident objections of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, just negotiating tactics? A manifestation of German domestic politics? Or are they red lines that will require the reforms to create a single banking supervisor to be totally recast or significantly delayed? We’ve consulted the FT Brussels Blog Oracle (and a few diplomats) to draw up these two scenarios.

The Germans are digging in: no deal this year

There was genuine shock at Schäuble’s intervention. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of finance ministers, four EU ambassadors predicted to us that a deal — or partial agreement — was at hand. That was until Schäuble spoke. He opened with a dispute that officials thought was close to being resolved: whether small banks fall under the ECB’s supervision responsibilities. Don’t think this will pass the German parliament, he warned.

More worrying for some was his next point.