IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, during this morning's news conference in Tokyo.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s declaration this morning that Greece should be given two more years to hit tough budget targets embedded in its €174bn bailout programme – coming fast on the heels of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly symbolic trip to Athens – are the clearest public signs yet of what EU officials have been acknowledging privately for weeks: Greece is going to get the extra time it wants.
But what is equally clear after this week’s pre-Tokyo meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg is there is no agreement on how to pay for those two additional years, and eurozone leaders are beginning to worry that the politics of the Greek bailout are once again about to get very ugly.
The mantra from eurozone ministers has been that Greece will get more time but not more money. Privately, officials acknowledge this is impossible. Extending the bailout programme two years, when added to the policy stasis in Athens during two rounds of elections and a stomach-churning drop in economic growth, means eurozone lenders are going to have to find more money for Athens from somewhere.
IMF chief Lagarde, left, with the EU Commission's Olli Rehn at last night's meeting in Luxembourg
For those trying to figure out what the highly-anticipated EU treatise to be unveiled at next week’s summit on the future of the eurozone will say, it’s worth having a closer read at the International Monetary Fund report presented last night to eurozone finance ministers at their gathering in Luxembourg.
The concluding statement presented by Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, contains almost all the elements being weighed by EU leaders who are writing the report, and Lagarde was quite open about the fact she actively consulted two of the institutions involved in its drafting: the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Indeed, Olli Rehn, the commission’s economic honcho, explicitly endorsed the report at a press conference last night.
The most likely areas of consensus are in Lagarde’s three long-term recommendations for a eurozone banking and fiscal union, though several of them remain controversial, particularly in Berlin, and it remains unclear whether the four EU institutions drawing up their plan will be as willing to confront the German government as head-on as the IMF has.
At the Ambrosetti forum in northern Italy, Nouriel Roubini, the US-based economist, weighs in on the health of Europe’s banks and sides with IMF chief Christine Lagarde on the need for the sector to raise even more capital.
The fuss over who will be the European Union’s first full-time president is obscuring the less sexy but potentially more important question of who will get the two or three most powerful jobs in the next European Commission. A good many governments would prefer to see one of their nationals in a truly influential economic policymaking role in the Commission than occupying the EU presidency, which may turn out to be a more hollow job than once foreseen.
Commission president José Manuel Barroso says he will not nominate his new team until EU leaders have chosen their new head of foreign policy, a post that entitles its holder to a Commission seat. Any country wanting a big economic portfolio at the Commission will therefore steer clear of putting forward a candidacy for the foreign policy job, because there is only one Commission seat for each nation.
Ask a minister in a European Union government what post their country hopes to get in the next European Commission, and the response is the same every time – something important to do with the economy. Well, you can’t blame people for not hurrying to step into the shoes of Leonard Orban, the Romanian commissioner for multilingualism.
On the other hand, there aren’t enough top economic jobs for Commission president José Manuel Barroso to satisfy everyone. Truth to tell, the Commission looks too big with 27 members. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will stay under the EU’s Lisbon treaty. A guaranteed seat on the Commission seems a simple, visible way of making a country’s citizens feel connected to the EU.