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Will Sunday's referendum help or hurt Beppe Grillo, right, leader of the FIve Star Movement?
Referendums in Europe are often a blunt weapon against the establishment. Italians will be voting in one on Sunday and, of course, it could end badly for Matteo Renzi, the country’s restless centre-left premier. But more likely the result will buck the trend. Indeed this referendum may actually turn the tables and leave the anti-establishment Five Star Movement licking its wounds.
The issue is slightly obscure – oil and gas drilling rights – and the politics is far from straightforward. As the FT’s James Politi explains, Italians will vote on whether to stop renewing offshore licenses for facilities within 12 miles of the coast. The latest polls show the pro-ban environmentalists will win handsomely. But the critical question is whether they will come near the 50 per cent turnout threshold. That is where the real politics comes in.
Mr Renzi is firmly on the side of indifference. He says the referendum is a waste of time and has urged voters to not to bother. In an interview today with La Repubblica he calls it “a hoax”. This all conveniently helps him hedge his position and avoid looking too friendly with Big Oil and Italy’s energy giant Eni. More importantly, it also puts Italy’s leading populist party, the Five Star Movement, to the test. Read more
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Italian banks appear to be in trouble. Again. With €360bn in non-performing loans – by far the largest pile in the eurozone, and behind only Greece and Cyprus as a percentage of all outstanding loans – the market has been selling off Italy’s financial sector since the start of the year to where it’s now down about a third of its value since January. But their troubles have become acute again because of the struggles of one mid-sized bank, Banca Popolare di Vicenza, to raise the €1.8bn in capital the European Central Bank has demanded.
The share sale by Vicenza is being underwritten by UniCredit, Italy’s only systemically important bank, but last week UniCredit sought government assistance out of fear Vicenza’s shares wouldn’t be bought by nervous investors – and UniCredit itself would be left holding the bag. That, in turn, raised questions about UniCredit’s own balance sheet, where it already lags behind many of its peers in terms of financial health.
The Italian government isn’t in a place to help, however. First of all, it doesn’t have any money to throw at the problem; its national debt is already nearly 140 per cent of economic output, the highest in the eurozone outside of Greece, and there’s not a billion or two around to spare. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Rome did intervene, it would have to follow the EU’s new post-crisis banking rules, which require the government to force losses on private investors before any public money can be used to rescue a bank. Read more
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Mr Renzi, left, during his visit last week with Germany's Angela Merkel in Berlin
Sometimes it seems not a day goes by without Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, picking a fight with Brussels. For a while, it was his angry denunciation of its slow response to the refugee crisis. Then he accused the EU of a “double standard” on Russian gas pipelines. More recently, he held up a €3bn EU aid package to Turkey. And he’s been blaming new EU rules for his country’s mounting banking crisis. But the most critical fight he’s been waging was on full display yesterday: his attempt to get more wiggle room for Italy’s 2016 budget.
Pierre Moscovici, the European Commission’s economic chief, was the man in the firing line this time, since yesterday was his semi-regular appearance to unveil the EU’s latest economic forecasts. In the run-up to Mr Moscovici’s announcement, Pier Carlo Padoan, the Italian finance minister, laid down his marker: he wanted a decision quickly that would allow Rome more flexibility to spend a bit more than EU rules normally allow. But Mr Moscovici was having none of it. Mr Padoan would have to wait until May for a decision, along with every other eurozone minister.
In what appeared a fit of mild Gallic pique, Mr Moscovici also noted that “Italy is the only country in the EU” that had already been given special dispensation under new budget flexibility guidelines – it is able to miss its structural deficit target by 0.4 per cent in order to implement Brussels-approved economic reforms – and it was now coming back repeatedly for more. Read more
Having trouble following the fight over the EU’s budget rules? You’re not alone. They are fiendishly complicated, particularly since nearly every eurozone country is at risk of violating a different part of them.
Is your deficit over 3 per cent of economic output? Then you’re in the “excessive deficit procedure”. Is your deficit under 3 per cent but at risk of going over? Then you’re in the “preventative arm”. What if your deficit is under 3 per cent, but your national debt is over 60 per cent of gross domestic product? Well, you can still be in an “excessive deficit procedure” if you don’t cut the debt fast enough.
There are so many iterations that the European Commission has an entire 115-page “vade mecum” – fancy Latin for “guidebook” – for those trying to figure out how they work.
The complexity of the rules has made it particularly difficult to judge the new Italian budget, submitted – along with all other eurozone countries, save bailout countries Greece and Cyprus – to the European Commission on Wednesday. Read more
Do last week’s German constitutional court ruling lambasting – but failing to overturn – the European Central Bank’s crisis-fighting bond-buying programme and today’s political upheaval in Italy have anything in common?
In the view of many ECB critics, particularly in Berlin, the two are not only related, but one may have caused the other. Read more
Berlusconi, right, hands over ceremonial bell to Monti, marking the transfer of power last year.
With Silvio Berlusconi’s vow to run again for prime minster in February’s snap elections on an avowedly anti-German and anti-austerity platform, Italian attitudes towards Berlin and the EU’s handling of the eurozone crisis are suddenly back on the front burner.
Fortuitously, we just completed one of our regular FT/Harris polls, which surveyed 1,000 adults in the EU’s five biggest countries – including Italy– in November. And it’s no wonder Berlusconi believes his new attacks will be receptive at home: Italian attitudes against Germany and austerity are hardening.
We’ve posted the 16-page report with the complete results here for anyone who wants to wade through them, but it’s worth highlighting the Italian findings. Fully 83 per cent of those polled believe Germany’s influence in the EU is “too strong” – the same total as Spaniards, but a stunning jump since October 2011 when only 53 per cent of Italians felt that way. Read more
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. Read more
With the European Commission holding its final summer meeting on Wednesday, Brussels goes on holiday in earnest starting next week, with nothing on the formal EU calendar until a meeting of European affairs ministers in Cyprus on August 29.
But if whispers in the hallways are any indication, veterans of the eurozone crisis remain traumatised by last August, when some inopportune comments by then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi shook Europe from its summer slumber. Indeed, Maria Fekter, Austria’s gabby finance minister, has already speculated on the need for an emergency August summit.
Herewith, the Brussels Blog posts its completely unscientific odds on which of the eurozone’s smouldering crisis embers could reignite into an out-of-control summer wildfire, forcing cancelled hotel bookings and return trips to Zaventem. Read more
Italy's Mario Monti, left, being greeted at the G20 summit by Mexican president Felipe Calderon
When EU leaders agreed last year to give the eurozone’s €440bn rescue fund more powers to deal with a teetering country short of a full-scale bailout, it actually created two separate tools to purchase sovereign bonds of a government finding itself squeezed by the financial markets.
Some officials in northern creditor countries believed the most efficient tool would be using the fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, to purchase bonds on the primary market (when a country auctions them off to investors) rather then on the secondary market (where bonds already being openly traded).
The rationale was simple: By declaring the EFSF was going to move into an auction, perhaps at a pre-agreed price, they would effectively set a floor that would encourage private investors to pile in. Indeed, as one senior official said at the time, the EFSF might not even need to spend a cent; the mere threat of auction intervention might be enough to drive up prices and spark confidence, luring buyers back.
In addition to the prospect of using only very little of the EFSF’s increasingly scarce resources, a primary market intervention also had another political benefit: instead of buying bonds off private investors – in essence, rewarding the bad bets made by bankers and traders – the EFSF money would go directly to the governments selling the bonds.
With the topic of using the EFSF – and its successor, the €500bn European Stability Mechanism – to purchase sovereign bonds back on the table for Spain and Italy, it would seem an opportune time for advocates of a primary market programme to have their say. But there’s a problem: as designed by eurozone officials, it can only come as part of a full-scale bailout, meaning it is virtually impossible for Rome or Madrid to accept one. Read more
Italy's Mario Monti and Spain's Mariano Rajoy chat during a March EU summit in Brussels.
The leaked copy of the Italy “country-specific report” from the European Commission which we got a hold of before its official publication Wednesday contains lots of warnings about tax evasion and the black economy. But with Spain and Greece dominating headlines these days, one thing that stands out from reading the report is that Italy is not Spain or Greece.
Both Spain and Greece are struggling mightily to get their budget deficits under control, and some analysts argue they’re failing because of a “debt spiral” where their governments attempt to close shortfalls by instituting severe austerity measures – thus killing economic growth and causing bigger deficits.
The European Commission report (which we’re posting online here) shows how much better Italy’s situation is when it comes to its budgetary situation. Not only is Italy not dealing with huge deficits like Spain and Greece; last year it actually had a primary budget surplus – in other words, it took in more money than it spent, if you don’t count debt payments.
That’s a significant difference, and may be one of the main reasons Italy appears to be decoupling from Spain, as our friends and rivals over at Reuters noted in a Tweet this morning: the spread between Spanish and Italian 10-year bonds have shifted a pretty dramatic 250 basis points over the course of the year. Read more
Italy's Mario Monti, right, with Chinese premier Wen Jiaobao during a Beijing trip at the weekend.
Most of the focus on Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Copenhagen was on how much leaders would increase the size of their €500bn rescue system. But according to a leaked document we got our hands on, the eurozone firewall wasn’t the only topic being debated.
The four-page report says the “Budgetary situation in Italy” was item #3 on the eurogroup’s agenda. As we wrote for Tuesday’s print edition, the report warns that any slippage in growth or a rise in borrowing rates could force the technocratic government of Mario Monti to start cutting again – something he has vowed not to do.
As is our practice, Brussels Blog thought it was worthwhile giving some more details and excerpts from the report beyond what fits in the newspaper. Read more
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, at last week's G20 summit in Cannes
At the European Commission’s regular mid-day press briefing today, Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio, the spokesman for economic issues, said the Commission’s Italian monitoring team is expected to arrive this week. After agreement Friday in Cannes, the International Monetary Fund will be sending its own team at the end of the month. Read more
Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini
The euro and European stock markets rallied today after Herman Van Rompuy delayed Monday’s EU summit by a week, a rally pegged to market hopes the new date was a sign European leaders were finally preparing a comprehensive agreement to deal with the worsening debt crisis. Read more