Germany

Peter Spiegel

Gerhard Schröder’s unexpected re-emergence as a voice for European fiscal integration may or may not change minds in increasingly eurosceptic Germany. But in our half-hour interview, the former chancellor made a pretty heart-felt case that the country’s leadership should be pressing ahead with pro-EU economic policies, even if they are unpopular.

Given the limited space we have in the daily newspaper, we thought Brussels Blog readers might be interested in a fuller account of his views on the issue. As we noted, Schröder was careful not to directly attack his successor, Angela Merkel, for her recent handling of the crisis – something done last month by Helmut Kohl, who unlike Schröder is a member of Merkel’s own political party.

But he did take a more subtle dig. He made the case that politicians need to push through unpopular policies if they believe in them – and then noted he paid the price for reforms in German labour and social benefit policies, collectively known as Agenda 2010, which are now credited with leading to an economic turnaround. Read more

Peter Spiegel

German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble

Influential Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has picked yet another fight with eurozone politicians, this time with Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble.

On his New York Times blog, Krugman takes issue with the German finance minister’s claim at a panel discussion in Frankfurt on Thursday that “economists worldwide” agree the 2008 eurozone crisis was triggered by excessive public debt “everywhere in the world”.

Krugman says excessive public debt actually triggered a crisis in only one country, Greece. Ireland and Spain’s problems only become a public debt crisis after private-sector bank debt was moved onto the government books through bail-outs. Similarly, until the recent standoff over the US debt ceiling, American problems have originated in the financial sector. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Greek riot police confront protestors in front of parliament in Athens on Wednesday

Just as one Greek crisis appears to be dissipating, another one flares up that risks pushing Athens into default in a matter of weeks. For those struggling to follow along, here’s another one of our quick primers – and a guide for what to watch for in the coming days.

For much of the last month, officials have been fretting that unless they can piece together a new €120bn bail-out for Greece by next week, Athens would run out of money. The first default by an advanced economy in 60 years would ensue, potentially wreaking havoc across the eurozone.

The reason behind the fear was a complicated domino effect that started with the International Monetary Fund: the IMF was going to withhold its €3.3bn in aid due this month unless the European Union could ensure Greece could pay its bills for another year. Greece, however, is going to be unable to pay its bills next year without a new bail-out. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Monday night, the work of EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels today to unravel the Greek debt crisis got a whole lot harder: Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greek sovereign bonds to just a few notches above default.

If ministers were hoping to “re-purpose” Greek debt in a way that would prevent the eurozone’s first-ever default, S&P is basically telling them: Good luck; we don’t believe you can do it.

But a closer reading of the S&P report may give the eurozone leaders an out: the credit rating agency seems to have ignored the possibility that the new Greek bail-out will opt for a roll-over of Greek bonds, a plan backed by the European Central Bank, instead of a debt swap, which is supported by Germany. Read more

Peter Spiegel

A decision about how to keep Greece solvent is coming to a head, and for those keeping tabs, here’s a quick primer on what to watch for in the next few days. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Following the hugely successful auction of Irish bail-out bonds Tuesday, Klaus Regling, head of the eurozone agency that raised the cash, said the offering “confirms confidence in the strategy adopted to restore financial stability in the euro area”. But is that really what investors were telling us?

To be sure, the first-ever use of the eurozone’s €440bn rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, was an unmitigated victory for Regling and his nascent organisation – though, let’s remember, that the agency which actually did the heavy lifting was Germany’s debt agency, which is rather experienced in such auctions.

And investors would not have flocked to the issue – some €44.5bn in orders came in for a €5bn offering – if the markets thought the euro was about to implode.

But as my London-based colleague and sovereign debt savant David Oakley quoted one fund manager saying: “We are buyers of this bond because it is very safe and offers extra yield over German Bunds.” Which seems to be the prime motivator here. Read more

Peter Spiegel

In today’s paper, fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal has a nice scoop about a letter France and Germany sent to European Union officials announcing their formal objections to including Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area, the visa-free travel zone that most EU members are part of.

Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, has already responded this morning by calling the letter a “discriminatory act against Romania,” and vowing to fight the move.

Because the issue could get even hotter, especially since the incoming Hungarian presidency had made Bulgarian and Romanian Schengen membership such a priority, we thought we should post the letter here, with some annotations of our own. Read more

Twenty-six European leaders turned up for a dinner in Brussels this evening with one burning question to discuss: Whether or not to change the European Union treaties to accommodate Germany’s demands for a new permanent bailout fund?

But one European leader burst in and insisted on talking about something else. That would be David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and his obsession was the European budget. Read more

Peter Spiegel

The opening feature of any EU summit is the gathering of heads of government at their partisan caucuses. These days none is more important than the European People’s Party, the right-wing EU coalition that includes Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Read more

Peter Spiegel

The call by Angela Merkel to reopen the European Union’s treaties in a major address to the Bundestag is already generating reaction from heads of government in other member states as they begin descending on Brussels for a two-day summit.

Ms Merkel worked the phones the day before the summit, calling several of her counterparts in an attempt to shore up support – a sign of just how precarious her position is and her need to come out of the summit with a victory following intense criticism at home for her political deal-making to win over reluctant allies. Read more

Christian Wulff, Germany’s new federal president, has not been idle. He had barely wiped his feet on the doormat in Schloss Bellevue, his splendid new Berlin residence, before setting off on a foreign trip.

While his job is without power, it carries lots of prestige. Indeed, the role is more about symbolism than substance. But the symbolism matters.

His first stop on Wednesday was in Strasbourg to meet Jerzy Buzek, European Parliament president. Second stop was Paris, for a chat with Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée palace. And third stop, on Thursday, was Brussels, where he had lined up Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general.

It was all about pouring oil on troubled waters, to be sure. Germany’s relationship to the European Union has seldom caused so much anxiety amongst its neighbours, since Berlin started to bang the drum with a vengeance about the need for fiscal discipline – first in Greece, and now in the rest of the eurozone. Read more

Tony Barber

The euro has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the dollar since last November, and the general view in Europe is that this is good news – indeed, one of the few pieces of good economic news to have come Europe’s way recently.  The argument goes as follows: euro weakness = more European exports = higher European economic growth.

Unfortunately, the real world is not as simple as that.  Inside the 16-nation eurozone, not every country benefits equally from the euro’s decline on foreign exchange markets.  As Carsten Brzeski of ING bank explains, what matters is not so much bilateral exchange rates as real effective exchange rates.  These take into account relative price developments and trade patterns, and their message for the eurozone is far from reassuring. Read more

Tony Barber

There is a gulf separating Germany from France on how to cure the eurozone’s ills, and it does not bode well.

Germany identifies the eurozone’s chief problems as excessive budget deficits, weak fiscal rules and a general culture of over-spending in the region’s weaker countries.  The remedy, say the Germans, lies in austerity measures, tougher punishments for rule-breakers and better housekeeping.  Germany is so sure that it has got the answer right that it is introducing a €80bn programme of tax increases and spending cuts – not because the German economy desperately needs such measures, but because the government in Berlin wants to set an example to other eurozone states.

France knows the eurozone has a fiscal problem, but it disagrees with the German view that immediate and drastic austerity measures are essential.  The French contend that, if budget hawks win the day, Europe’s fragile economic recovery will fade away and there may even be another recession (as Paul Krugman notes, an example often cited in support of this argument is the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having just about dragged the US economy out of the Great Depression, inadvertently caused another economic downturn with a premature attempt to balance the budget). Read more

As the EU prepares for its summit at the end of the week, the FT’s senior foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman chairs a debate with Mats Persson of Open Europe and Charles Grant of the Centre for European Economic Reform. They discuss the tensions between France and Germany over the southern European members’ debt crisis, and the call for greater budget scrutiny, which the UK is questioning.

Tony Barber

Slowly, too slowly perhaps, the eurozone is delivering its response to the collapse of market confidence triggered by the European sovereign debt crisis.  An important step appears likely to be taken at a finance ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.  They are set to agree the terms on which a Special Purpose Vehicle will be able to borrow up to €440bn on the markets to help a eurozone member-state that is experiencing borrowing difficulties.

On the face of things, this initiative goes considerably further than the €110bn rescue package arranged last month for Greece. The Greek aid is based on bilateral loans from other governments in the 16-nation eurozone. But the SPV will be a self-contained entity, operating under Luxembourg law, that will issue bonds backed by member-state guarantees.

You could almost call them “common eurozone bonds” – except that, for political reasons, this is an all but unmentionable term.  Opposition to common eurozone bonds is exceptionally strong in Germany, where the prevailing view is that such a measure would simply benefit wastrels like Greece and impose higher borrowing costs on countries that practise fiscal discipline – i.e., Germany itself.  Nonetheless, the German government has taken an energetic role in designing the structure of the SPV.  It is a big moment for Germany and one which shows that the German commitment to making a success of European monetary union is not to be underestimated. Read more

Tony Barber

Speaking with one voice.  Singing from the same song sheet.  Communicating clearly with financial markets.  Avoiding needless disputes with governments.  These are essential attributes of high-level policymakers at a modern central bank.  So what are we to make of an extraordinary speech given last Friday in the Moroccan city of Rabat by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an executive board member of the European Central Bank?

To put it bluntly, Bini Smaghi told the German government that it had screwed up Europe’s response to the Greek debt crisis. Germany’s ineptitude meant that the final price of the emergency rescue package ended up being far higher than necessary, he complained. Read more

Tony Barber

Apart from wars and economic slumps, nothing divides Europeans as much as the Eurovision Song Contest.

This annual televised orgy of glitzy musical mediocrity is now in its 55th year.  Good God, it is even older than the European Union’s 1957 founding Treaty of Rome!  The years have truly taken their toll.  Some would say the last memorable winning song was “Waterloo” by Sweden’s Abba in 1974.  Still, this year’s final, to be staged in Oslo on Saturday, is as certain as previous spectacles to hold millions of viewers spellbound.  It would have been no different 2,000 years ago if a multinational gladiatorial contest had been broadcast from Rome’s Colosseum to the rest of Europe. Read more

Tony Barber

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard the news on Tuesday that the German authorities were to impose a temporary ban on certain types of transactions – known as “naked short-selling” – in eurozone government securities.  Laugh, because it seems more than a coincidence that the announcement was made just before parliament in Berlin was due to open a debate on authorising Germany’s contribution to the €750bn international rescue plan for the eurozone. The ban looks like a piece of raw meat thrown to legislators who labour under the delusion that the eurozone’s debt crisis is all the fault of “speculators” and are eager for revenge.

Cry, because the German announcement underlines how the eurozone’s leaders, after finally appearing to get on top of events with the financial stabilisation plan unveiled on May 10, are once again misjudging the dynamics of the crisis.  To cite another example, Italy’s central bank has just decreed that Italian banks will not be required to adjust their capital ratios if eurozone government bonds in their portfolios fall in value.  What this will mean in terms of the credibility of financial data published by the banks, I hate to think. Read more

Tony Barber

The first 11 years of the euro have exposed several flaws in the design of Europe’s monetary union.  One is the fact that, contrary to expectations, the experience of sharing a common currency with advanced, northern European economies did not spur but held back structural reform in weaker, southern member-states.  Another was the ineffectiveness of the stability and growth pact, the eurozone’s so-called fiscal rulebook.  In a nutshell, too many governments ran up large budget deficits and didn’t bother to cut public debt when they felt like it – and this, by the way, includes Germany, the self-styled paragon of fiscal discipline, under former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Read more

Tony Barber

Well, did he say it or didn’t he?  I am referring to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.  According to El País, Spain’s most reputable newspaper, Sarkozy told his fellow eurozone leaders at a May 7 summit that France would “reconsider its situation in the euro” unless they took emergency collective measures to overcome Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.  The source?  Officials in Spain’s ruling socialist party, quoting remarks purportedly made after the summit by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister.

It would be extraordinary, if true – for two reasons.  First, if France were to leave the euro area, European monetary union would have no reason to continue.  It would collapse.  And that would be like dropping a financial nuclear bomb on Europe.  Secondly, it is inconceivable that France would consider it to be in its national interests to take such a drastic step.  We are left to conclude that if Sarkozy really did utter these words, it was just a bluff to get Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to sign up to the eurozone rescue plan that was ultimately agreed in the early hours of May 10. Read more