Tag Archives: eurozone

The Old New Idea for a Political Union – Misunderstood?

The Greek financial crisis now threatens the whole eurozone. It appears that without substantial debt restructuring Greece is likely to default, and would have to leave the eurozone. This could lead, however, to substantial collateral damage and unintended effects for the whole European banking and financial system. The other option is a very large fiscal transfer from the eurozone core. This second option will lead donor Member States to demand substantial political guarantees for fiscal discipline in Greece and other possible recipients (i.e. Ireland and Portugal).

It looks like the crisis has brought back the idea for a true European political union on the table. The president of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet, himself has called for the establishment of a European financial minister.

Now, the idea is not really new. Back in the 1950s there was such a project, called the European Political Community (EPC) that aimed to politically unite the Member States in the European Economic Community (read more about it in the excellent paper by Berthold Rittberger). The main institutional innovation in the EPC was the central role of the bicameral parliamentary body in adopting the budget and the legislation. The EPC project failed, but some of its ideas were later implemented by including the European Parliament in the legislative and budgetary procedures.

Going back to Mr. Trichet’s ideas, we see something completely different. In his framework, the Council would act on the basis of a proposal by the Commission, in liaison with the ECB, to take some measures directly affecting the economy of the Member State that has not implemented its fiscal stability program. There is no role for the European Parliament whatsoever. Apparently Mr. Trichet believes that the very agreement on a stability program is substantial legitimation for a direct involvement in the economic and fiscal policies of a Member State by the Council.

This is quite doubtful. It’s very difficult to imagine how the same people that violently oppose to austerity measures taken by their democratically elected governments will somehow accept direct interference by an institution of the European Union. It’s equally difficult to imagine that the European Parliament will approve such an institutional framework. I can certainly understand the reasonable motives for proposing such a second stage of austerity enforcement, but I’m afraid that such a procedure will decisively worsen the democratic deficit of the European Union.

If and when the governments of the Member States decide that a more profound Treaty revision is needed for establishing tighter fiscal coordination, they will have to consult their national parliaments and the European Parliament. Such consultations are in fact inevitable, since TEU requires the summoning of a Convention to adopt the draft text of the revision (art. 48, para. 2-5 TEU).

 

 

The Pact for the Euro: a Summary

The heads of state and government of the еurozone Member States have adopted a new competitiveness pact, called “A Pact for the Euro”. The pact comes as a form of guarantee for Germany in order to increase the funds of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). You can read more about my concerns about the legality of such a pact here. An early assessment of the Pact for the Euro is available here.

The guiding rules of the Pact for the Euro:

  • It will be complementary to the existing instruments of economic governance in the EU;
  • It will concentrate on actions where the competence lies with the Member States. In the chosen policy areas common objectives will be agreed upon at the Heads of State or Government level;
  • Each year, concrete national commitments will be undertaken by each Head of State or Government;
  • The implementation of commitments and progress towards the common policy objectives will be monitored politically by the Heads of State or Government of the Euro area and participating countries on a yearly basis.

The goals of the Pact for the Euro:

  • Fostering competitiveness;
  • Fostering employment;
  • Contributing further to the sustainability of public finances;
  • Reinforcing financial stability.

The main policy instruments:

  • Monitoring and adjusting unit labour costs (ULC);
  • Removing unjustified restrictions on professional services and the retail sector;
  • Improving education systems and promote R&D, innovation and infrastructure;
  • Removing red tape and improving the regulatory framework (e.g. bankruptcy laws, commercial code);
  • Labour market reforms to promote “flexicurity”;
  • Tax reforms, such as lowering taxes on labour;
  • Aligning the pension system to the national demographic situation;
  • Putting in place national legislation for banking resolution;
  • Developing a common corporate tax base.

 

 

Intuitu Personæ: Who Should Lead the ECB?

There’s quite a lot of talk recently about who should replace Jean-Claude Trichet as president of the European Central Bank. Sylvester Eijffinger and Edin Mujagic from Tilburg University say that a firm ECB president, unwilling to yield to political pressure, is needed. Jean Quatremer provides, as usual, a very detailed picture of the behind-the-curtain negotiations surrounding the nomination of the future president of the ECB.

Two things are important here. First, we should avoid at all cost a North-South polarization surrounding this issue. True, the ECB president is elected by qualified majority, but any trust in the eurozone that is still available will be lost if Member States start fighting over this post. Second, whoever is elected should be able to guarantee strong leadership. We certainly do not need an ECB president that divides instead of unifying the eurozone.

At a time of great peril there’s no room for experimenting. I do hope that all Member States, and France and Germany in particular, will not try to over-politicize this nomination. Otherwise consequences may become overwhelming, and history will apportion blame accordingly.

 

 

The Tedious Necessity of Treaty Revisions

The spirit of reform is haunting Europe once again. There’s talk of political union, scrapping EU institutions, and even leaving the European Union altogether. I can only sympathize with this spirit of reform and creative destruction. But one thing worries me – the lack of apprehension of the legal foundation of the EU.

The European Union is not a tribal clan. It is a supranational organization based on law, and encompassing an intricate network of rules that makes the whole thing possible. Having ideas about reform is cool, but reform necessitates the revision of the Treaties by the prescribed procedures.

That is why a political union cannot happen on a short notice. It will have to go the long way through the ordinary revision procedure, since it will provide new powers to the EU (art. 48 TEU). This is also the case with scrapping the European Economic and Social Committee, for example (it changes the institutional framework of the EU). As for the potential quitting of the EU by the United Kingdom, a more detailed legal analysis is needed in order to calculate all the costs and provisional time-frames for such a move.

Whatever the spirit of reform brings to the table, we need to execute reform legally. Backdoors are not available (see the position of Otmar Issing against the adoption of a political union through the backdoor of a monetary union).

 

 

Whither New Stress Tests for European Banks?

The European Commission is calling for new stress tests for European banks. The reason? Well, it appears that the previous stress tests during the summer failed to spot huge problems at the heart of Ireland’s financial institutions.

Oli Rehn is quoted saying that Ireland’s banking meltdown was a one-off case that would not be repeated elsewhere in Europe. Well, I disagree.

Back in July I noted that stress tests must also include really worst-case scenarios, as in worst-case scenarios. Worst, not best. And all of them. We know that summer stress tests failed to do that. Now we are led to believe that the new stress tests will do the job. That is unlikely.

The problem is analyzed very well by Richard Field. He claims that there is only one way to restore trust and erect a firewall against contagion. Governments must make the statement about which banks are or are not solvent in their system and make the asset-level data available to support it.

Trichet States the Obvious

The President of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet, has called for a “quasi-budget federation” in front of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. The “f” word, however, is ominously missing from the EP’s press release. Mr. Trichet went on to say that “pundits are tending to underestimate the determination of [EU] governments”.

The determination of EU to rescue the euro notwithstanding, things continue to look bad. The interest rate spread between Italian bonds and benchmark German Bunds have come to a euro-lifetime high. Belgian 10-year bonds spread to German bunds of similar maturity widened to the highest levels since at least 1993. In other words, markets are not buying the “determination” stunt, at least for now.

Hence Mr. Trichet’s comments. He is quite aware that in the long term the current institutional framework of the eurozone is NOT sustainable. Even if the ECB manages to calm the markets for the moment (which is by no means certain), new, more powerful crises may follow in the next decade, vastly undermining economic growth in the whole European Union.

So Mr. Trichet is doing two things. First, he is trying to calm the markets, which is a very sensible thing to do. Second, he is telling European politicians that the complacency on the eurozone institutional framework is no longer possible and discussions must start now. Now the question is are they listening?

 

 

The Irish Bailout: the Details and the Bigger Picture

The details of the Irish bailout are now set:

EU countries and the International Monetary Fund will provide up to €85bn in total, which may be drawn down over a period of up to 7½ years. About €50bn is aimed at bolstering Ireland’s public finances while it implements a €15bn austerity package over the next four years. Of the remaining €35bn, €10bn will be used to recapitalise Ireland’s stricken banks, while another €25bn will be a contingency fund to help support the banking system if necessary. The Irish government itself will contribute €17.5bn towards the bank contingency fund, while the IMF will put €22.5bn towards the overall package. This will also include three bilateral loans from the UK, Sweden and Denmark, with the British contribution being around €3.8bn. Ireland will pay average interest of 5.8 percent on the loans.

More importantly, the Council agreed on speedy introduction of a permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM). An ESM loan will enjoy preferred creditor status, junior only to the IMF loan. The most important feature are the so-called collective action clauses (CACs). These clauses allow a large majority of bondholders to agree a debt restructuring that is legally binding on all bondholders. CACs are meant to ease the process of debt restructuring. The CACS will be introduced in mid-2013.

The proposal for ESM is supported by the president of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet. The president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, will present proposals for amendment of the Treaties in December.

There is, however, a problem. The financial markets seem unconvinced. As Eurointelligence notes, the problem is that the market demand for peripheral debt is weak, and from 2013 demand for peripheral bonds may dry up completely due to the bail-in rules. And the 6% interest on bailout loans may be too high for Ireland to stay solvent.

There are some ideas how to handle this. Wolfgang Münchau proposes to separate national debt from financial debt and to turn all outstanding sovereign bonds, existing and new, into a common European treasury bond. He does admit that his proposal is not actually feasible, though.

So a more practical approach is to see whether, after all, the EU rescue system can survive the waves of uncertainty. Spiegel International does just that, and notes that of all the possible next bailouts, one is a no-brainer. If Spain falls, so does the euro.