Financial crisis

It is still two hours before the summit, but it seems that one of Germany’s principal initiatives is already sinking badly: a drive to suspend EU voting rights from countries that violate budget rules.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, broke his relative silence of recent days to condemn an idea championed by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

“If treaty change is to reduce the rights of member states on voting, I find it unacceptable and frankly speaking it is not realistic,” said Mr Barroso, who has thus far remained quiet on the key questions that will dominate this summit. “It is incompatible with the idea of limited treaty change and it will never be accepted by the unanimity of member states.” Read more

Will Iceland really join the European Union?  I have come to Reykjavik in search of answers.  In one sense, it’s the right time to be here: the skies are white for almost 24 hours a day at this time of year, appearing to throw light on everything.  But in another sense this promises to be a frustrating trip - Iceland itself doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be in the EU or not.

The opinion polls are not good.  After a long period in which a solid majority of about 60 per cent of Icelanders supported EU membership, things have turned upside down in recent months.  Support for EU entry was estimated to be as low as 28 per cent in one recent survey, whilst opposition now runs at about 60 per cent.  If Iceland is serious about joining the EU, it will have to hold a referendum, so these numbers matter.  Right now, however, we are a long way from a referendum – at least two years, and perhaps longer.  Much can change.

Enthusiasm for the EU was high when Iceland’s banking system and currency collapsed in 2008, prompting the introduction of a drastic austerity programme conducted under the beady eye of the International Monetary Fund.  But Iceland’s dispute with the UK and the Netherlands over how to repay British and Dutch savers who lost their money in Icesave, the failed online Icelandic bank, has changed public opinion. Read more

Better late than never.  That is one way of looking at the three-year, €110bn rescue plan for Greece that was announced on Sunday by eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund.  It took seven months of indecision, bickering and ever-mounting chaos on the bond markets for the eurozone to get there, but in the end it did – and it may just have saved European monetary union as a result.

Looked at in a different light, however, the rescue package does not appear to be such a masterstroke.  For its underlying premises are, first, that there should under no circumstances be a restructuring of Greek government debt, and secondly, that Greece’s troubles are unique to itself and need not be considered in a context of wider eurozone instability.  Both premises are open to question. Read more

With good reason the eurozone’s political leaders have been criticised for reacting too slowly to the Greek sovereign debt crisis.  But what’s new about that?  Slowness often seems to be a defining feature of Europe’s approach to policymaking.

Consider the proposals that are in the air for the creation of a European Monetary Fund to manage Greek-style crises in the future.  There is widespread support for such a fund, ranging from the European Commission to Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s centre-right finance minister, and socialists in the European Parliament. Read more

Nothing captures Germany’s anger and frustration with Greece better than the story – if you can call it that – in Tuesday’s Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid.  “Goodbye, euro. Bild gives the drachma back to the bankrupt Greeks.”  Beneath the headline is a picture of a well-dressed, bespectacled young man, presumably German, handing a wad of drachmas – a defunct currency – to a rather frightened-looking, middle-aged Greek lady.  The message is brutally clear: we Germans don’t want to share the same money as you lot.  Drop out of the eurozone and leave us alone. Read more

You know that the European Union is in trouble when Russia offers more intelligent advice on the eurozone’s debt crisis than Spain, the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, disclosed the other day that he had recommended to George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, that the Greek government should request assistance from the International Monetary Fund to sort out its problems.

This is exactly the course of action advocated by several non-eurozone EU countries as well as a host of distinguished economists and, dare I say it, the editorial writers of the Financial Times.  As it happens, I don’t agree – if by IMF assistance we mean financial help.  The IMF will be involved, along with the European Central Bank, the European Commission and eurozone finance ministers, in monitoring Greece’s public finances and providing technical aid as required. Read more

Today’s European Union summit in Brussels will set out the framework for a financial rescue operation for Greece.  This much is clear is from various briefings being given by officials from countries as varied as Austria, Lithuania, Poland and Spain.  But financial markets will have to wait until next week to see the full details of the plan.

The central question is how far Germany has been pushed to swallow its words and offer help for Greece, after weeks of denying that it would do anything of the sort.  Only this morning Otmar Issing, the German former chief economist of the European Central Bank, was telling German television viewers that Greeks enjoyed “one of the most luxurious pensions systems in the world” and it was unreasonable to expect German taxpayers to fund it. Read more

An unambiguous message of solidarity among eurozone states will come from Thursday’s European Union summit in Brussels, but it is still unclear if this will translate into a specific financial rescue plan for Greece.  Debate among governments is continuing.  However, expectations in financial markets have been raised so high over the past 24 hours, what with European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet flying in for the summit from Sydney and officials in Berlin hinting at a German-led rescue, that it would be risky for the EU leaders not to commit themselves to some sort of initiative.

There are various possibilities: bilateral loans from Germany and France, with perhaps Italy and the Netherlands chipping in; an International Monetary Fund-style standby facility, organised among the 16 eurozone countries; or an EU-wide loan, involving a show of support from all 27 member-states.  It is quite likely that the IMF will be asked to continue providing Greece with expert technical advice, but I don’t think the eurozone countries will go further and call on IMF financial resources.  Apart from anything else, there is a fear that the US may raise objections on the grounds that the IMF’s firepower should be reserved for fighting emergencies not in prosperous Europe but in other, more disadvantaged financial hotspots. Read more

Europe’s leaders are getting radical.  On Thursday the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of the European Union will meet for a day of economic policy discussions in Brussels – but not in their normal location, the marble-and-glass Council of Ministers building, famous for its charmless, disinfected atmosphere and its 24km of headache-inducing corridors.  No, this time they will get together in a nearby building called the Bibliothèque Solvay, which is a pleasant old library rented out for dinners and receptions.

The switch of location was the brainwave of Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s first full-time president, who thought it would encourage a more creative, informal exchange of views.  He has introduced another innovation: each leader is to be restricted to just one adviser at the talks.  This isn’t a problem for countries with leaders who are masters of economic policy detail.  But others are less happy about the arrangement.  It is whispered that the Italians are swallowing especially hard, wondering what on earth Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will say once he’s on his own. Read more

The expression “it never rains but it pours” may seem inappropriate for a Mediterranean country such as Greece.  But it was the phrase that sprang to mind when I heard last week that Greek tax collectors are planning to go on strike in protest at the government’s austerity measures.  Like the political manipulation of budget data, the inefficiency of the tax system is one of the Greek state’s most glaring weaknesses.  How will a tax collectors’ strike help matters?

That said, I do not share the view of German and French government officials who insisted vehemently last week that the solution to Greece’s problems lies almost entirely with the Greeks themselves.  If this were the answer, nothing would be simpler than for the Greeks to roll up their sleeves and get on with a 10-year programe of wage restraint and productivity growth. Read more

How can Greece dig itself out of crisis?  From the sunny shores of south-eastern Europe, it could do worse than take a look at the windswept, north-western corner of the continent and study what the Irish government is doing.

As I noted last week, Greece, in spite of the disastrous condition of its public finances, has hardly suffered at all so far in terms of the living standards of ordinary citizens.  Gross domestic product is thought to have slipped by a mere 1.1 per cent last year.  By contrast, Ireland has experienced a vicious recession: between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009, Irish GDP slumped by more than 10 per cent. Read more

There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about how Greece, or some other fiscal miscreant in the 16-nation eurozone, would be rescued by its partners in the event that it was unable to refinance its debts.

Quite a few commentators seem to think eurozone governments would find it hard to sidestep the ban on bail-outs specified in European Union treaty law.  The European Central Bank, the European Commission and certain EU governments, not least that of Greece itself, have contributed to the confusion by insisting in public that a rescue is undesirable and unnecessary (while quietly planning for precisely this contingency). Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

The biggest fights at European Union summits are usually about money.  It’s no different this time.  At their final summit of 2009, the EU’s 27 national leaders have been wrestling in Brussels with the question of what contributions each country should make to a “fast-start” fund to help developing countries address climate change.

It looks as if EU governments will come up with an offer of about €2bn a year – much of it coming from rich countries such as France, Sweden and the UK - for the three-year period of 2010 to 2012.  “Anything above €2bn will be an impressive offer,” European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said this morning. Read more

Buried in this month’s “Annual Report on the Euro Area 2009″ from the European Commission is some absorbing material on competitiveness in the eurozone.  Some countries, above all Germany, Europe’s export champion, have consistently outshone others in terms of business competitiveness since the euro’s launch in 1999.  The result has been the accumulation of large current account deficits in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain – but also in Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.

As the Commission says, in impeccably understated language: “The build-up of large external liabilities has increased exposure to financial shocks…  In the current downturn, financial markets have become more responsive to the net external financial asset position for the euro area countries.  Even if to a large extent the net external position is related to the private sector, the public sector can be affected by private sector debt in the form of potential bail-outs and other fiscal implications.” Read more

A couple of months ago, some European Union policymakers talked despairingly of how 2009 risked turning out to be “a wasted year”.  Now the EU is on a roll.  The impasse over José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president was removed last month when the European parliament stopped playing games and renewed his term of office.

And all of a sudden, it looks as if “a decade of deadening debate over the European Union’s institutional shape” – as British foreign secretary David Miliband puts it in today’s FT – will soon come to an end, after Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty produced a massive majority in favour.  It may not be long before the EU has its first full-time president, a new head of foreign policy and a new Commission with a five-year mandate serving under Barroso. Read more

Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty on Friday should in principle be about the treaty’s contents, not the state of the Irish economy.  But the economy’s collapse over the past 12 months compels both pro-Lisbon and anti-Lisbon forces to confront the question of whether membership of the European Union – and, specifically, of the eurozone – has helped (even saved) Ireland, made things worse, or not made much difference one way or the other.

An interesting angle from which to approach this question is to ask whether Ireland has fared better than another island off the north-west coast of Europe that was thrown into turmoil at almost exactly the same moment last year – namely, Iceland.  Iceland isn’t a EU member and doesn’t use the euro.  Has this accelerated Iceland’s recovery or held it back? Read more

One day I’ll break the habit of only visiting Ireland when there’s a referendum on a European Union treaty.  It can easily mislead you into thinking that the Irish people like nothing better than a passionate ”national conversation” (as the latest faddish expression puts it) about Europe.  In fact, it is closer to the mark to say, as Eamon Delaney does in an article for the Irish magazine Business & Finance, that “Ireland is an island with a self-absorbed political culture which is not all that interested in overseas affairs”.

Be that as it may, I’m back in Dublin and the contrast with the political atmosphere of June 2008, when Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon treaty on institutional reform, is pretty startling.  Fifteen months ago, businessmen and economists I talked with were in no doubt that Ireland was heading into a recession, but none predicted the whirlwind that has wrought unmatched havoc on the economy and come close to destroying the national banking system. Read more

September’s prize for Headline of the Month goes to the sub-editor with the dry sense of humour who put these words at the top of a story about Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister: “Berlusconi is Best Leader in Italy’s History, says Berlusconi.”

The story itself quotes Berlusconi as telling a news conference in Sardinia, where he was hosting talks with Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: “I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history.”  So the headline, if not the sentiment behind it, cannot be faulted for lack of accuracy. Read more

Since February 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s anti-bribery convention came into force - with the aim of reducing bribery of foreign officials in international business deals - the US has brought 103 cases, Germany more than 40, France 19 and the UK just one.  So says “Global Corruption Report 2009: Corruption and the Private Sector”, a study published on Wednesday by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog.

From a British point of view, the report makes uncomfortable reading.  “UK companies still have a long way to go to increase their awareness and adopt robust anti-bribery compliance programmes,” it says. Read more