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Mr Mas congratulates Mr Puigdemont after Sunday night's election in Barcelona
It’s been three weeks since Spain’s inconclusive national elections left the country in an uncharacteristic political stalemate. As one of the last remaining EU countries dominated by two centrist parties – and a two-party system where leaders have some of the strongest tools anywhere to impose strict discipline on backbenchers – it has normally been clear on election day whether the centre-right Popular party or centre-left Socialists had a majority in the 350 congress of deputies. But for the first time since it returned to democracy, neither of the country’s two largest parties secured more than 30 per cent of the vote in the December 20 contest, and the second-place Socialists (who polled 22 per cent) have repeatedly refused to join a grand coalition with the Popular party (28.7 per cent) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
That might all change this week because of some fast-moving developments in Catalonia which, until now, looked headed towards a re-run of regional elections in March. First, Catalonian independence leader Artur Mas, whose Junts pel Si coalition won the regional elections in September, unexpectedly stepped down as leader on Saturday, a week after the far-left pro-independence CUP party vowed not to join in a coalition with Mr Mas to govern the region. Mr Mas’ resignation cleared the way for his less controversial ally Carles Puigdemont to take over Junts pel Si, and on Sunday Mr Puigdemont was voted leader of Catalonia in a special session of the regional parliament.
That decision could set off two more unprecedented moves that are likely to dominate Spanish political debate this week: the Socialists may now think again about joining Mr Rajoy – if not in a grand coalition at least in support of a Rajoy-led minority government – as a way to create an anti-independence united front in Madrid. And the Catalonian government is likely to move more quickly towards creating all the trappings of independence, including a central bank and tax authority. Last night, Mr Rajoy warned darkly that he had “given instructions” to prevent any illegal act from going into law in Catalonia. “I am going to defend democracy in all of Spain,” he said. Read more
Rajoy is still angered by Spain's snubbing during Mersch's selection earlier this year.
If you thought the long, drawn-out saga of Yves Mersch’s nomination to a seat on the European Central Bank’s powerful executive board could not get any stranger, think again.
The Spanish government this morning informed Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, that it objected to the fast-track “written procedure” Van Rompuy had begun in order to get Mersch finally seated in the job. The procedure – which was begun after the European Parliament refused to sign off on the nomination last month – was due to end today, making it possible for Mersch to take the long-empty seat by November 15.
But the Spanish veto means Mersch now can’t go through and the appointment battle, which has dragged on for nearly ten months, will have to be taken up by the EU’s presidents and prime ministers when they summit in Brussels later this month.
The question gripping the Brussels chattering classes now is: Why? Was Madrid trying to fire a warning shot across the bow of the ECB and Berlin, which have been ratcheting up the pressure over the conditions of a long-expected Spanish rescue programme? Senior officials insist the real reason is far more prosaic. 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
Spain's Mendez de Vigo, right, with his Danish counterpart at a Brussels meeting in May.
An otherwise uneventful meeting of 27 European ministers in Brussels was upended Tuesday when Inigo Méndez de Vigo, Spain’s EU minister, issued a statement saying Madrid, Rome and Paris all agreed countries were not doing enough to implement eurozone crisis decisions taken at last month’s high-stakes summit.
The statement (see it here, in Spanish) appeared to be a coordinated attack on Germany, where senior officials have spent weeks sending conflicting messages on what, exactly, was agreed at the summit and when decisions will be implemented – a big deal for Spain, since the measures could eventually mean the eurozone and not the Spanish government will be liable for debt incurred during Spain’s bank bailout.
One problem: there was no three-country agreement. And now Rome and Paris are running away from Méndez de Vigo’s statement as fast as they can. 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
Madrid police stand guard outside Bankia, the troubled Spanish bank, during a protest Saturday.
In talking to senior officials about plans for a Spanish bailout for our story in today’s dead tree edition of the FT, several steered us to the seemingly overlooked bank recaptialisation guidelines for the eurozone’s €440bn rescue fund that were adopted last year.
Those six pages, available for all to see on the website of the rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, make clear European leaders were contemplating exactly the situation Spain now finds itself in: having done the hard work on fiscal reform, but suffering from a teetering banking sector that needs to be recapitalised.
The important thing to note in the current context is that the EFSF guidelines, adopted after more than a year of fighting over whether the fund should be used for bank rescues at all, allow for a very thin layer of conditionality for bailout assistance if the aid goes to financial institutions – notably, it foresees no need for a full-scale “troika” mission of monitors poking around in national budget plans. That’s something the government of Mariano Rajoy has been demanding for weeks. 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
Baltic Sea fisherman. Image by Getty
Has the UK lost its influence in Europe? That has become the conventional wisdom in Brussels after prime minister David Cameron last week spurned France and Germany by refusing to sign up to a new “fiscal compact” to further integrate the bloc’s economies.
A first indication may come over the next 24 hours, during which a group of bleary-eyed ministers will try to close an agreement on the European Union’s annual fisheries quotas. Unlikely as it may seem, the UK is expected to get its way because it has rounded up support from France and Germany.
The December fisheries council is one of Brussels’ quirky annual rites and arguably the world’s ultimate fish market. Working late into the night, European diplomats barter quotas on scores of salt water species – from North Sea cod to the nephrop norvegicus – to piece together a comprehensive agreement governing the fisheries of the world’s biggest seafood consumer.
As my colleague, Andrew Bolger, reported in Thursday’s FT, Scotland’s fishing industry is nervous, thanks to Cameron’s defiance. Read more
Moody’s decision to downgrade Spain’s sovereign credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2 was very unwelcome to the Spanish government yesterday, but it may have come as a timely reminder to other European leaders, meeting in Brussels today, that they are still a very long way from solving the sovereign debt crisis. Ever since the beginning of the year, the markets have been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the European negotiators, believing that the Germans and the French had finally come to the view that some form of fiscal burden sharing was a better alternative, for themselves as well as for the troubled economies, than the risk of sovereign defaults, or worse still the break up of the euro. Read more
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
Rumours are flying thick and fast that the troubles of Spain’s banking sector will require emergency attention at Thursday’s summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. But it appears highly improbable that Spain will ask for help from the emergency financial stabilisation fund that EU finance ministers agreed to set up last month. For one thing, the fund is not yet fully up and running. For another, the Spanish government is emphatically not shut out of credit markets – a point underlined this morning by the successful issuance of €5bn worth of short-term government bills.
Spain’s economic vulnerabilities are obvious, and the implications of a Spanish crisis for the rest of the eurozone are no less clear. French and German banks alone are exposed to some $450bn of Spanish debt, according to a report just published by the Bank for International Settlements.
But it is worth repeating that Spain is not Greece. The Greek crisis originated in decades of mismanagement of the public finances, plus an unhealthy culture of corruption and use of the state for political patronage. Although such practices are not unknown in Spain – and not unknown in the US, China and numerous other countries, for that matter – they have never attained Greek levels. Read more
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
Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean. It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.
The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union. The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea. It was not a bad idea in principle. But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM. Read more
For anyone wondering why Europe’s leaders are so determined to avoid a restructuring of Greek sovereign debt, I recommend a remarkable piece of research published on Monday by Jacques Cailloux, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief European economist, and his colleagues. (Unfortunately, it seems not to be easily available on the internet, so I’m providing links to news stories that refer to the report.)
The RBS economists estimate that the total amount of debt issued by public and private sector institutions in Greece, Portugal and Spain that is held by financial institutions outside these three countries is roughly €2,000bn. This is a staggeringly large figure, equivalent to about 22 per cent of the eurozone’s gross domestic product. It is far higher than previous published estimates. It indicates that, if a Greek or Portuguese or Spanish debt default were allowed to take place, the global financial system could suffer terrible damage. Read more
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
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
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
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