Monti, left, and Katainen at last week's meeting between the two prime ministers in Helsinki
It is axiomatic that politics make strange bedfellows, but it would be hard to find stranger bedfellows than Finland, the orneriest of the eurozone’s austere north, and Italy, the biggest debtor in its troubled south.
Even before the eurozone debt crisis put the two countries on a collision course, Helsinki and Rome had their run-ins, particularly after Parma beat out a Finnish competitor to host the European Food Safety Authority – and then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi poured salt in the wound by suggesting EU officials would prefer Parma’s famous ham to Finnish smoked reindeer.
But are there suddenly signs of a thaw – or even an alliance? First, Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, last week decided to visit Helsinki for meetings with Jyrki Katainen, Finland’s prime minister. Now, top officials from Berlusconi’s centre-right party appear to be adopting a Finnish plan to help lower Italian borrowing costs.
As momentum builds towards finding a “roadmap” for commonly-backed eurozone bonds ahead of next month’s EU summit, where the topic is likely to be on the table, officials have begun focusing on interim steps before getting to full-blow mutualisation of debt, which Berlin has made clear it will not support.
Much of the attention thus far has gone to a “wise men” report put out by five German economists last year that would create a “debt redemption fund,” which would refinance debts from eurozone countries over 60 per cent of their gross domestic product. The fund would jointly guarantee the excess debt to help pay it off through cheaper borrowing costs.
But in recent weeks, people briefed on internal debates in Frankfurt and Brussels say another incremental idea has caught the interest of EU officialdom: instead of eurozone bonds, the currency bloc should start with eurozone bills, short-term debt backed by all 17 euro members.