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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.