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9. Democracy and its discontents
THE NOTION THAT THERE IS A DEMOCRATIC DEFIGT in Europe is almost as old as the European project itself. Until 1979, when the first elections to the European Parliament were held, none of the European institutions were directly elected, and the gap between ordinary citizens and decisions taken in Brussels was seen to be a yawning one. National governments, which are elected, are of course represented in the Council of Ministers, the senior legislative body. But most have tended to keep quiet about their bargaining and few are held to account for actions in Brussels by their own national parliaments. Moreover, the spread of qualified-majority voting has meant that individual governments can now be forced to accept policies that they have themselves opposed.1
Over time, various suggestions have been made for filling this democratic deficit. Increasing the powers of the European Parliament is one that has been pursued through almost every treaty. Greater transparency in both the Commission and the Council has long been another favourite. Greater democratic input into the Council of Ministers through national parliaments has often been urged. So sometimes has the idea of some body that more directly involves national legislatures. And there is increasing recourse to referendums to approve new treaties: no fewer than ten were promised for the abortive constitutional treaty, compared with just one for the Single European Act of 1987.
None of these has proved satisfactory as a remedy for the deficit. The European Parliament has continued to disappoint even its most ardent supporters. Transparency has been improved, but few ordinary citizens understand even the basics of how the EU works; indeed, most have no idea what the difference is between the Commission and the Council of Ministers. Most national parliaments remain bad at holding ministers to account for decisions made in Council meetings, and attempts to get them to work together have largely failed. As for referendums, almost as many have been lost as won, so most governments feel decidedly nervous about holding any more.
It is true that public scepticism about institutions has been as strong (or sometimes even stronger) at national as at European level. In many countries, the loss of faith in the European Parliament, for instance, is matched by a similar or even greater loss of belief in the efficacy of the national parliament. Moreover, in many countries duties that once devolved on directly elected governments – monetary policy, exchange-rate policy or competition policy, say – have been handed to unelected bodies on the basis that they will be done better. Yet there is still a bigger cause for concern when something similar happens at European level. Even when citizens are fed up with their own government or parliament, they do not question their legitimacy or their continuing existence. But when it happens at European level, which seems more foreign, many query both.
Following the national model, some commentators have accordingly suggested as an alternative that the European Union should rest on a different idea altogether: that of output rather than input legitimacy. On this basis, there is no real need to get hung up about democratic accountability as such.
Rather, the European project can be expected to gain and retain public support – and thus end up acquiring greater legitimacy – simply by delivering good results. If voters can see that, thanks to the EU, their economies are more successful than they would be without it, they will be content. In this context it helps when there are concrete results from EU actions to point to: lower airfares or mobile phone roaming charges, say.
Yet three related developments have largely kyboshed even this notion. The most obvious is that, far from being seen to deliver consistently good results, the European Union and especially the euro are now seen by large numbers of voters to be delivering mostly bad ones. Across much of the continent, Europe (and especially the single currency) is today associated with austerity, spending cuts, tax increases, rising joblessness and chronically slow growth. Debtor countries have seen a particularly sharp fall in enthusiasm for the European project as a result. But even in creditor countries, which have suffered less economically, Europe and the euro have lost their appeal, because they are now associated with bail-outs and transfers rather than with rising prosperity.
This new mood music has become especially discordant for Europhiles. Their messages that the EU would boost growth through its single market, that the euro would improve competitiveness by promoting reform and that both groups would protect European citizens from the pressure of globalisation and the fallout from the world financial crisis have fallen flat. Instead, Eurosceptics everywhere feel vindicated: their view that there is too much regulation by a remote EU bureaucracy and their warnings about the insanity of adopting a single currency without the right institutions, without moves towards political union and without enough democratic control seem to have been borne out by events.
The second consequential development has been a sharp fall in the popularity of the European project, right across Europe. Polls taken in 2013 by Euro barometer, the German Marshall Fund and the Pew Global Attitudes survey have all come up with similar findings.2 Especially in the south, but also in the north, approval of the EU has declined fast in recent years. The number of people who consider their country’s membership to be a good thing has also fallen. The decline has been most precipitate in Mediterranean countries like Spain and Greece. But it is also remarkable in France, where the latest Pew survey found an even smaller proportion of the population approving of the EU than in the traditionally Eurosceptic UK.
This sharp dip in the EU’s popularity in opinion surveys is reflected in the rise of populist parties that are anti-euro and anti-EU. Some of these parties are from the far right, some from the far left.
Often they are anti-free trade and anti-globalisation. In many cases they are strongly against immigration, which is increasingly associated with the EU because of its eastward expansion to take in not just the central European countries but also Bulgaria and Romania, for which free movement of labour arrived only in January 2014 (the British and some other governments are trying to curtail benefit entitlements for some specified groups of immigrants). Anti-Islam feelings also play a role. But their new-found strength owes most to the populists’ ability to channel growing anti-EU sentiment.
Thus Greece has seen the rise not just of Golden Dawn, an explicitly extreme-right party, but also of Syriza, an anti-austerity left-wing party that is running ahead of the ruling New Democracy party in opinion polls. Spain and Portugal have, so far, escaped the rise of populist parties of the right, but the more extreme United Left party is doing well in Spain and support for the two mainstream centre right and centre-left parties has collapsed. Italy has seen the spectacular rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement, which took almost 25% of the vote in the election of February 2013, forcing the centre-left and centre-right parties into an uneasy coalition. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is running close to 20% in the opinion polls.
The rise of populists and extremists is not confined to troubled euro-zone countries alone. In Finland, the True Finns (now the Finns Party) under Timo Soini, which came out of nowhere in 2011, largely to protest against the euro, are scoring 20% or more in most opinion polls. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom is also riding high. Wilders has formed an alliance with Le Pen for the European elections, campaigning on an anti-EU, anti-euro platform. The UK Independence Party has refused to join this alliance, but it too has been scoring highly in the polls. Across central and eastern Europe a swathe of extremist and populist parties, from Jobbik in Hungary to the League of Catholic Families in Poland, are similarly doing well.
Almost the only country not to have seen a sharp upsurge in a populist, anti-euro or anti-EU party is Germany. It is also one of the few countries where the number of people with a favourable opinion of the EU has not fallen sharply in recent years. Residual German war guilt plays a part in holding down extremist parties. Yet it is, on the face of it, surprising that anti-EU or anti-euro sentiment has not made itself felt, as the German public has shown itself deeply hostile to the whole notion of bailouts and transfers to Mediterranean countries. Moreover, a new party, Alternative for Germany, has been established and, although it narrowly failed to get into the Bundestag in the September 2013 election, its poll ratings have since been rising. The real reason Germany looks different from other countries may be that it has suffered little during the euro crisis. Besides, German voters have come to trust Merkel not to let them down.
The search for legitimacy
The third and perhaps most difficult challenge is a direct result of the euro crisis itself. As discussed earlier, a large part of the policy response has been to move towards deeper political integration in the euro zone. The fiscal compact, the European semester, the two-pack, the six-pack and the rest add up to far more intrusive monitoring of national governments’ fiscal and economic policies. The Commission now has the responsibility to vet and, if need be, propose changes to national governments’ budgets even before their parliaments have seen them. Coming on top of the loss of monetary and exchange-rate policy due to the introduction of the euro, the result is a significant transfer of power from national to European level.
It should not be a surprise that one consequence is a crisis of democratic accountability. As a senior German finance ministry official put it to Ulrike Guérot and Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2012, “the weakness of the system is not about spending and how to promote growth, but about legitimacy”.3 Some of those who pushed for a single currency at and before Maastricht always thought it would take closer political union for it to work satisfactorily – indeed, a few pressed for EMU precisely because they thought it would force the creation of a United States of Europe. But most voters and most governments were not persuaded. Now a form of political union is indeed being brought in, not, however, as a positive result of careful national debate and as a consequence of economic success, but rather as a negative outcome to ward off economic failure. That surely will make it even harder to persuade voters to support the entire notion of political union.
It does not help that in parts of Europe democracy is going through something of a crisis at home. There are many manifestations of this. One was the fact that both Greece and Italy had technocratic prime ministers thrust on them during the euro crisis. Greeks have long been fed up with their political leaders. In Italy, voters have become increasingly disillusioned with their entire political class, often known as La Casta and widely reviled for its excessive cost and many privileges. Yet neither country was happy to have unelected leaders appointed in place of elected ones. It was this, perhaps more than a lost love for Europe that led so many Greeks to vote for fringe parties in May 2012 and so many Italians to back Grillo’s Five Star movement in February 2013. In Eastern Europe, Bulgarians have spent most of the past two years protesting in the streets against their government.
Romanians seem equally fed up with a long-running feud between their president and their prime minister. Hungary deserves a special mention here, as it has run into much condemnation in Brussels. Viktor Orban’s centre-right Fidesz party won a smashing electoral victory in 2010 after the outgoing Socialist government became discredited. But Orban proceeded to rewrite the constitution in ways that cemented Fidesz’s dominance over Hungary’s institutions and its intimidating control of the country’s media. Although the EU has managed to get the government to rewrite provisions impinging on central-bank and judicial independence, it has found its leverage over the government worryingly limited. As was discovered as long ago as 2000, when the EU tried to freeze relations with an Austrian government that included the far-right Jörg Haider as a coalition partner, a country that is a full member is much less susceptible to outside pressure than an applicant. Moreover, Orban’s membership of the centre-right European People’s Party transnational group is often said to have restrained his fellow heads of government from being too harsh on him. The result has been to damage the cause of liberal democracy in its broadest sense.4
Now the challenge from the euro crisis threatens to make matters worse. Indeed, in their first encounter with the European semester, several national leaders, even those normally thought of as pro-European, went out of their way to criticise the Commission for its intrusiveness. Spain’s Mariano Rajoy announced in 2012 that it was for his government, not the Commission, to decide the right level of the Spanish budget deficit. In France, Hollande early on declared that, while the Commission was within its rights to demand pension reform, his government should be left to decide what sort of changes to make and how quickly to make them. The Italian government rejected a criticism of its longer-term debt sustainability. And when Belgium, the most pro-European country of all, was rebuked over its budget deficit, one Belgian government minister asked aloud: “Who is Olli Rehn?” (the economic-affairs commissioner).5
Yet it is too simple to see the problem as merely one of excessive Commission interference in matters better left to elected national governments. That was to some extent true when it came to the operation of the stability and growth pact. When Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac came together in 2003 to overturn any suggestion of Commission-imposed sanctions on their two countries for breaching the terms of the pact, they were simply asserting greater legitimacy for elected political leaders. There was little in the way of broader economic fallout. Indeed, that is precisely why their colleagues, with the partial exception of the rule-loving Dutch, made so little fuss about the demise of the pact at the time.6
But the euro crisis has changed this completely, by bringing into the picture nationally sanctioned rescue funds. A bail-out of an excessively indebted country has to be approved by national authorities, including national parliaments, because ultimately it must rest on the credit of sovereigns. As became clear in May 2010, the EU budget is too small for this purpose. For such a fund to attract its AAA rating, it requires guarantees from creditworthy governments. And in national democracies, that needs the backing of national parliaments. This is one reason the issue of democratic accountability in Europe has become so acute. When it is clear that something has to be decided at European level, the EU treaties have a supranational, if not always satisfactory, mechanism of accountability. When decisions are wholly national, similarly, a national system should work. But in the euro crisis decisions are, in effect, hybrid: they are taken at a European level, but the funds being committed are provided nationally. In such cases issues of accountability and democratic control can all too easily fall through the cracks.
Hence the experience of the Finnish parliament (Eduskunta), which has repeatedly demanded specific collateral for loans to Greece and others. And hence also the growing role of the German Bundestag in demanding the right to approve every bail-out individually. The Bundestag’s demand for a say in bail-outs is strongly supported by another crucial German institution, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, or constitutional court, based in Karlsruhe. The constitutional court has played a big role in the euro crisis, chiefly because a number of plaintiffs have repeatedly petitioned it to declare various decisions to be unconstitutional because they infringe the German basic law –ranging from the first Greek bail-out to the establishment of the European Stability Mechanism to the ECB’s programme of outright monetary transactions (OMT) to support sovereign-bond markets. So far the court has not ruled against anything, but it has often hedged its verdicts with language suggesting that there are limits to how far the federal government in Berlin can go. In the case of OMT, it made its disapproval clear but transferred the case to the European Court for a ruling. It has also made clear, including in its ruling on the Lisbon treaty, that it does not see the European Union’s democratic credentials as sufficiently strong.7
Many Euro-enthusiasts are horrified both by the Karlsruhe court and by the Bundestag’s assertion of control over bail-out decisions. They see a creeping renationalisation at work, all of a piece with Merkel’s new-found enthusiasm for inter-governmentalism and the “union method” at the expense of the traditional community method. Germany’s lack of enthusiasm for the EU institutions, notably the Commission but also the European Parliament, which used always to attract strong German support, is to them part of the same pattern. What such enthusiasts tend to favour instead as a way to inject more democratic accountability into EU-related decisions is to give a much greater role to the only directly elected EU institution: the Parliament in Strasbourg. Yet this runs into huge problems of its own.
The Parliament is certainly ready and eager to step forward. It has already played a constructive role in drawing up the necessary legislation for the European semester. It wants to do more in the way of scrutiny of the Commission’s decisions and of any contracts for reform that national governments might accept. Yet the notion that it can help to fill the gap in the euro zone’s democratic accountability and in providing greater legitimacy for the system to ordinary voters is far-fetched and may be highly dangerous, for four reasons.
The first is institutional. The Parliament is quintessentially a body that brings together representatives from all 28 EU countries. It was relatively easy for the Council of Ministers to establish a sub-formation in the Euro group and now the Euro group summit. It is also fairly simple to form a tacit understanding that the economics commissioner as well as the Commission president should, like the presidents of the ECB and of the European Council, come from a euro-zone country. It is much harder to do the same in the Parliament. Indeed, the chair of the economic and monetary affairs committee during most of the euro crisis has been Sharon Bowles, a British Liberal Democrat.
Some have muttered about this, and a few enthusiasts, including the French Eiffel group, have even suggested setting up a separate or “inner” euro-zone parliament. But to most this would excessively institutionalise the already worrying divide between euro ins and euro outs.
A second objection is that the Parliament itself lacks legitimacy. It has been directly elected for the past 44 years, yet the turnout in successive elections has steadily fallen. European elections everywhere are treated as essentially national polls, in which voters typically register protests against their governments or back populist parties. There is no sense among voters of any Europe-wide political parties: few have heard of the main political groups or have any clue about what they actually stand for. The results of European elections are not seen to translate in any way into changes of executive power within the EU; they do not even determine the presidency of the Parliament, since this is divided between the two biggest groups for the term of each legislature. Few people have any idea what the Parliament does or who their MEP is. In short, for most ordinary Europeans the Parliament seems to be part of the problem of remote and largely unaccountable EU institutions, and not part of the solution.
Various remedies have been suggested for these ills. One old favourite is to give the Parliament more powers, which has been done so much that for most purposes it has become a co-equal legislator with the Council of Ministers. The idea is that if the Parliament is seen to be exercising fuller powers in the EU, voters will take it more seriously. And indeed the Parliament, especially through its committees, has become an important and at times extremely valuable part of the legislative process, often improving directives and regulations more effectively than the Council. Many people cite the examples of the REACH chemicals rules and the services directive, which was in part resurrected by the Parliament, as examples.
Yet even Europhiles remain dissatisfied with the Parliament. A believer in democracy might expect the three biggest groups, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), to debate from their different political standpoints and vote accordingly, as happens in national parliaments. But far more often the big groups come together to make the Parliament more of a lobby or non-governmental organisation that sets itself up against the Commission and the Council of Ministers, rather than acting like a normal legislature. The Parliament is fond of passing largely meaningless foreign-policy resolutions. Unlike most national parliaments, it always wants both more powers for itself and a bigger budget – something few of its voters would support. The divide between voters and their MEPs was made starkly clear when the Dutch and French overwhelmingly rejected the constitutional treaty, which had been approved by almost all the MEPs from those countries.
Another suggestion has been to give the Parliament a bigger and more explicit role in choosing the Commission, especially its president. The Lisbon treaty provides that the European Council, taking account of the results of the European elections, should nominate a candidate, who is then “elected” by an absolute majority of the Parliament. (The Parliament is also required to approve the entire college of commissioners, but not each individual, this time by simple majority.) Most of the political groups have taken this language as an excuse to put forward their preferred candidate for the Commission presidency before the European elections. The S&D group, for instance, has proposed the current president of the Parliament, Martin Schulz; the ALDE has put forward its leader, Guy Verhofstadt; and the EPP is proposing Jean-Claude Juncker. The idea is that this should make the elections matter more to voters, since they will, in effect, be indirectly choosing the next Commission president.
Yet this solution to the democratic deficit is unlikely to help. Most ordinary people remain profoundly ignorant both of the political groups that are proposing candidates and of the candidates themselves: it is hard to see British Labour voters, say, turning out in large numbers because they are enthused about the prospect of Schulz as the Commission president. Worse, by making the Commission more beholden to the Parliament than it already is, the plan would upset the EU’s institutional structure. Unlike the Parliament, the Council of Ministers cannot sack the Commission; if the Parliament has the decisive voice in the Commission presidency, this would aggravate the imbalance, making it all the more likely that the Commission and Parliament would come together to act against national governments. And worst of all, the plan would sharply reduce the field of candidates to become president of the Commission: no incumbent government leader would be ready to step down to campaign as part of the European elections.8
Besides the European Parliament’s own failings as an institution that can fill the EU’s and the euro zone’s democratic deficits, there is a third reason to doubt that it will be the answer. This is that an increasing number of populists and extremists are now represented in the Parliament. On one level, this could be seen as positive: at least this strand of opinion, often hostile to both the EU and the euro, will be fully represented in the European institutions. But the presence of such a destructive group of oddballs, loonies and closet racists is hardly likely to enhance the reputation of the Parliament or make it easier for it to play a role in holding the EU’s policymakers to account.
And there is yet another, fourth reason, why the Parliament will never be the answer to legitimacy and democracy in the euro zone. This is that decisions over euro-zone bail-outs, the rescue of European banks or fiscal transfers to troubled countries will always involve national taxpayers’ money. The Bundestag’s insistence on approving such measures is not mainly a symptom of a sudden Euroscepticism in Germany. It is something far simpler: the notion that, where national taxpayers’ money (or credit) is being used, there must be some national control over what it is being used for – and also some national accountability. There is no way in which a European-level body could supply either of these, least of all one whose raison d’être is always to increase its powers and to spend more.
Back to national democracy
This points to another answer to Europe’s democratic deficit: greater national involvement. The spread of national referendums on European issues is part of this: besides the two habitual practitioners, Denmark and Ireland, several other countries now put substantial new EU treaties or decisions such as whether to join the euro to popular vote. France and Austria have, at various times, suggested that a decision to admit Turkey to the EU would have to be approved similarly (France put the issue of UK membership to a referendum in 1972, securing a large “yes” majority). Under its European Union Act, the UK is required to put any treaty involving a significant transfer of power to Brussels to a referendum. And David Cameron has promised that, if he is re-elected as prime minister in 2015, he will ask the British people to decide whether to remain in a reformed EU.
Referendums are, however, always chancy affairs. So it is really national parliaments that are best placed to improve democratic input and accountability in the EU and the euro zone. Their role in the EU machinery has been increased by successive treaties. Since the Lisbon treaty, national parliaments have been given specific powers to police “subsidiarity”, the provision that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level. Under a yellow/orange-card procedure, national parliaments acting together can ask for Commission proposals for legislation to be withdrawn. The treaty also recognizes COSAC, a co-coordinating body of European committees from national parliaments, most of which maintain offices in the European Parliament building in Brussels. There is increasing interest in the more effective forms of national scrutiny of European legislation, with the most popular models being Denmark and Finland, where parliamentary committees hold the government to account for decisions it takes in the Council of Ministers.
The euro crisis has put renewed emphasis on the role of national parliaments. The Bundestag, the Eduskunta, the Dutch Tweede Kammer and others have asserted a direct interest in approving any decisions that rely on their taxpayers’ credit or money. And the new powers of the Commission to scrutinise draft national budgets, to issue recommendations to countries with excessive budget deficits or with large current-account deficits (or surpluses) are inevitably impinging on national parliamentary authority over public spending and taxation. For this reason it has become desirable, indeed essential, that the Commission should engage with national parliaments. So far, its response to the yellow-card procedure has been disappointing: only one proposal has been withdrawn, and the Commission disgracefully ignored a complaint from 18 different parliamentary chambers about the legal basis for a European public prosecutor. But as the system beds down, the Commission should end up doing more at the behest of national parliaments, and it must be expected that the commissioner for economic and monetary affairs and his or her officials will have to appear before them more often.
Yet even this might not be enough to lend greater democratic legitimacy to a far more intrusive system of economic control. That is why several analysts and commentators have at various times suggested much greater moves towards fuller political union, with an elected Commission that includes a finance minister, or at least an elected president of the Commission and, as a necessary adjunct, a substantial euro-zone budget. No doubt if the European project were to take a leap into full political union, some kind of federal election would become necessary. But at least for the foreseeable future, neither European voters, nor national governments, nor Europe’s political leaders seem remotely ready for any such steps.9
8. In, out, shake it all about
UNTIL EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND MONETARY UNION (EMU) came along with the Maastricht treaty, the general assumption was that all members of the European club would participate in all its formations and policies. Naturally there were exceptions: Ireland was neutral, so when it joined in 1973 it became the only member not in NATO; and the UK and Ireland stayed out of attempts to set up passport-free travel through the Schengen treaty. Some inner clubs such as the Benelux trio also existed. But Maastricht marked the first occasion when some EU countries, in this case first the UK and later Denmark, specifically opted out of a treaty obligation to join a major European project, the single currency. Also in Maastricht, the UK opted out of the so-called social chapter of social and employment legislation. Moreover, the treaty clearly envisaged that not all European Union members would qualify for EMU. Thus was born a new concept for the European project: that most were in but some would stay out of certain projects.
The newcomers to the European club in 1973, followed by Greece in 1981 and, to a lesser extent, Spain and Portugal in 1986, had long been an irritant to the more fervent Europhiles from the original six, especially those who believed that they were committed to a path that would lead to a federal United States of Europe. By joining the then EEC, all countries accepted the goal set out in the preamble to the Treaty of Rome, of an “ever closer union”. But, except for Ireland and, later, Spain and Portugal, all of them were more or less unenthusiastic about this objective. The UK especially came to be seen, notably during the years of Margaret Thatcher, as a backslider in Europe and an increasingly Eurosceptic country. That became even more obvious during the painfully protracted process of ratification of the Maastricht treaty by the British Parliament in the years of the John Major government between 1992 and 1994.
This perception, combined with the simple fact of the European Union then comprising 12 rather than six members (soon to become 15, after the accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995), led some to ponder the merits of a Europe that would move at different speeds or even towards different destinations. The idea that a small group of countries might go faster than others had been floated as far back as the 1970s by Leo Tindemans, then Belgian prime minister, but without finding favour.1 In 1994 two leading German Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Schäuble (who became the German finance minister in 2009) and Karl Lamers, published a paper in which they revived the notion by suggesting that, rather than always being forced to go at the pace of the slowest, a “hard core” of countries might move ahead with deeper integration, letting the back markers catch up later (or perhaps not at all).2
The concept was taken a stage further in the 1997 Amsterdam treaty. Denmark, Ireland and the UK insisted on the right to opt out of future justice and home affairs laws if they wanted to. And a new treaty provision was approved that specifically provided for the possibility of “enhanced cooperation”, meaning that a subset of EU members could go ahead with steps towards greater integration without having to wait for all to agree. By this time the notion had acquired many different labels. Besides hard cores and enhanced co-operation, these included variable geometry, avant-garde, pioneer groups, flexibility, concentric circles, multi-speed, two-speed, multi-tier, two-tier. The exact label used often depended on its user’s views: integrationists tended to prefer language that implied different classes or speeds of EU membership, whereas the British (and Danes) generally preferred wording that simply connoted variations in the terms of a country’s membership.
For most areas of EU policy, having some countries in but others out can be seen as a detail, perhaps a slight annoyance, but not otherwise a huge issue. There are few real concerns in Europe over the UK and Ireland insisting, as islands that lack compulsory identity cards, that they want to stay out of the Schengen passport-free zone, which anyway includes such non-EU countries as Norway and Switzerland. Similarly, nobody worries much that Denmark does not participate in most EU military or defense-related activities. The Amsterdam provisions for enhanced co-operation themselves have been used only twice, for a measure on divorce and for the EU patent (which Italy and Spain refused to join on linguistic grounds), without upsetting the entire system.
EMU is, however, more serious, mainly because it so strongly affects other European policies. Of course it was always going to be a club within a club, since the Maastricht criteria were designed from the start to restrict membership of the single currency to those that qualified. Greece failed in 1998, for example, though as the Commission said in its opinion on the matter it arguably still failed most of the criteria when it joined in 2001. But some countries that could have signed up for stage three of EMU (adopting the single currency) deliberately chose not to. The UK and Denmark had treaty opt outs.
Although Tony Blair seemed for a time hopeful of joining after he became prime minister in 1997, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was against. The “five tests” that Brown devised for membership (on business cycles, flexibility, investment, financial services and growth) may have been more sensible than the Maastricht criteria, but they also proved impossible to pass.
Denmark put the matter to a referendum in September 2000, which returned a negative majority. Sweden, which was legally obliged to join by the terms of its accession treaty, chose also to put the issue to its people, who voted no in September 2003. Thus the euro began life with three “voluntary” non-members from the EU.
All countries that accede to the European Union are now legally required by their accession treaties also to join the euro (something that would apply, incidentally, to an independent Scotland). But they have to take the step only when they are ready and when they meet the Maastricht criteria. In practice, this has meant that no country can be forced into the euro if it chooses not to adopt it.
Moreover, the process was always going to take some time for the mainly central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. Slovenia was the first new entrant to join the euro, in 2007. It has since been followed by Cyprus and Malta (2008), Slovakia (2009), Estonia (2011) and Latvia (2014). This means that 18 of the European Union’s 28 member countries are also members of the euro, while ten remain, at least for now, outside the single currency.3
When in trumps out
This division into ins and outs is, of course, somewhat blurred and fluid. Because it shadows the euro and the ECB so closely, Denmark already functions as if it is in, though it would need another referendum before it could actually join – and that seems unlikely for now. But most of the “outs” are, in effect, “pre-ins”. Lithuania will clearly follow the other two Baltic republics into the euro as soon as it can, probably in 2015. Poland will take quite a lot longer, but its intention to join at some point is clear. Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia may well need a long period before they are deemed ready to take on the euro’s obligations. Of the recent entrants, only the Czech Republic and perhaps Hungary seem to be unsure in principle whether to join the euro, putting them closer to the same camp as Sweden and the UK.
Why does any of this matter? There are three broad answers. The first is that, as the euro crisis has pushed its members towards deeper integration, so it has inexorably started to make membership of the single currency more important than any other aspect of the European Union. As noted in previous chapters, in the four years to 2014 the task of saving the euro has been overwhelmingly the main European business for Germany’s Angela Merkel, as for other euro-zone leaders. Similarly, the pressure on bailed-out countries to comply with creditors’ demands for fiscal retrenchment and structural reforms has overwhelmed any other EU actions and policies. Although the two are in practice often conflated, to citizens of Greece or Portugal it is the euro and not the EU that is seen to have made their lives a misery. Yet it is the EU, not the single currency, against which they tend to fulminate most loudly (opinion polls in most countries continue to find majorities for staying in the euro).
Second, institutional and other changes adopted by and for the euro can have a direct impact on the structure of the wider club, sometimes to the latter’s disadvantage. The emergence of the Eurogroup, which was fiercely resisted by most of the outs, especially the UK, has clearly reduced the significance of EcoFin meetings of finance ministers, just as the outs predicted. Now euro summits threaten to do the same to European Councils, one reason why Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, greeted their establishment with bitter words, addressed to Merkel, “Are we getting in your way? You are humiliating us.” Other institutional changes over recent years, including the setting-up of the euro, zone’s various bail-out funds, the fiscal compact treaty and the banking union, under which bank supervision for euro-zone countries is moving to the ECB, will not apply to several countries not in the euro. Future ideas could go even further: a euro-zone budget or insurance fund, or a separate euro zone Commission and Parliament, would clearly downgrade the role and significance of their wider EU equivalents.
Third, and related to this, the euro and the policies adopted for it can affect policies that touch on all EU countries, including outs. The most obvious risk is that decisions taken by the euro zone on issues like taxation could spill into or even damage the wider single market. Under the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, from 2015 onwards the 18 euro-zone countries will constitute a “qualified majority” in themselves. This means that if they were to form a caucus before meetings of the full 28-member Council of Ministers, they could, in effect, take a decision that would then willy-nilly be imposed on the rest. In recognition of this, the UK insisted that in the European Banking Authority, which is based in London, decisions should be taken by a “double majority” system that protects the position of outs by requiring measures to have majority support of both groups – though as more outs join the euro, this system will lose much of its potency and it will stop working altogether when fewer than four countries are out.
A couple of considerations make these three points more worrying for the future. The first is that there is a subtle ideological difference between the 18 ins and the ten outs. The first group has a slightly more protectionist, anti-free market bent, largely because it counts the Mediterranean countries and France among its most important members. By contrast, the outs include almost all of the EU’s most liberal free traders, including the UK, Denmark and Sweden from older members and Poland and the Czech Republic from newer ones. Merkel for one is fully aware of this, which is why she has always remained keen to preserve single-market policy decisions for the full 28, not the narrower 18, a group in which she has fewer natural allies.4 The second consideration is that the divide between ins and outs is likely to persist for some time, and conceivably forever. When any of the outs have raised concerns about being disadvantaged by their status, one easy response has always been to point to a simple solution to their worries: they should join the euro. And indeed, as already noted, many of the outs are pre-ins that are planning to do just that. But the euro crisis has made several countries extremely nervous about plunging in too soon. It has also led the ins to be more careful about whom they admit – many now believe that it was a mistake to let in Greece, for example. Some of the outs, including Sweden and Denmark, must also win referendums before they can join. Above all, there is one out, indeed the biggest of them all that is highly unlikely to join the euro for the foreseeable future, if ever: the UK.
Those pesky Brits
It may seem odd for a book looking mainly at the causes and consequences of the euro crisis to devote much space to a country that has no intention of adopting it. But the ills of the single currency and how they are resolved could have a profound effect on the UK debate about whether to stay in the club. And that debate in turn will affect the euro zone, for it is hard to see either it or the wider EU going ahead unaffected if a huffy UK were to pick up its toys and walk out, which has become a distinct possibility.
The UK has always been the most awkward member of the European club. This goes back at least as far as Churchill’s 1946 Zurich speech, when he called for a more politically integrated Europe but made clear that the UK would not be part of it, as well as to the detachment of the British representative at the 1956 Messina conference. It was only in 1961 that the British government decided it should get more involved, but by then France was led by de Gaulle, who implacably (if, perhaps, understandably, on the grounds that the UK had interests that were more Atlanticist than continental) twice vetoed British entry – to the chagrin of the other five members.
Even after Edward Heath triumphantly took the UK into the EEC in 1973, its reputation as a reluctant member endured. His Labour opponent, Harold Wilson, had opposed the entry terms and, when he won election in 1974, set about what he called a “renegotiation”, largely as a political gesture meant to appease his party’s fiercest anti-marketers (a tale that may sound familiar to observers of the British Conservative Party 40 years on). He knew that he could not push the idea too far, however, so he stopped short of calling for further treaty changes and settled for mostly cosmetic measures that were enough to secure an overwhelming yes vote for continuing membership in a referendum held in June 1975.
This by no means ended British grumpiness, however. After it lost the 1979 election, the Labour Party moved into a strong anti-European position. Under the leadership of Michael Foot from 1980, it campaigned for (and lost) the 1983 election on a manifesto promising immediate withdrawal from the EEC. But Europeans did not find the nominally pro-European Tory government elected in 1979 an easy partner, either. Margaret Thatcher began her time as prime minister by demanding her money back from the European budget and ended it 11 years later by crying “no, no, no” to suggestions that the European project might evolve towards a closer federal union, with the Commission acting as a government, the Parliament as a lower chamber and the Council of Ministers as an upper house – an incident that contributed directly to the rebellion within the party which led to her removal from office.
So it has been with the UK and the single currency, almost from its beginnings, and to an extent so it is today. From the original opt-out at Maastricht, which John Major, Thatcher’s successor, secured, until the establishment of the euro in 1999, the British government and public have remained deeply dubious about both the wisdom of setting it up and its prospects of survival. Indeed, in 1994 Major himself expressed his scepticism about the chances of the single currency ever coming into being: writing in The Economist, he talked of those who continued to recite the mantra of full EMU as having “all the quaintness of a rain dance and about the same potency”.5 When the euro duly arrived five years later, many Britons were surprised – and they were even more astonished when it survived its first ten years.
Against this background, it was to be expected that most British observers, and even many British politicians, reacted differently from the rest of Europe to the eruption of the euro crisis in 2009. With a strong feeling of “I told you so”, many appeared at first to welcome the single currency’s travails and to forecast its early demise. Since the UK had long warned against the folly of the euro, it chose –unlike, say, Poland and Sweden – to distance itself from most rescue packages for individual countries (save that for Ireland, with which the UK has obvious strong links) as well as to stand aside from any institutional or treaty-based response. That the euro crisis coincided with the arrival of a new Tory-Liberal coalition led by David Cameron in May 2010 made the British position even tougher, for since the mid-1990s the Conservatives have taken over from Labour as the mainstream party that most loves to hate Europe.
Indeed, Cameron has been under pressure from his Eurosceptic backbenchers to do something on Europe ever since he became prime minister. As a candidate for the party leadership in 2005, he had promised to pull out of the European People’s Party, the main transnational centre-right political group, and did so in 2009, annoying Merkel in particular, as well as weakening both his and his country’s influence in the EU. He also promised to put the new Lisbon treaty to a referendum, but later abandoned that pledge because the treaty had been ratified by the time he took office. Instead he passed the European Union Act, which requires that any further EU treaty that transfers significant powers to Brussels must be approved by a national referendum.
The Cameron government also took a different attitude from its Labour predecessor towards efforts to resolve the euro crisis. Although it stuck firmly to the principle that it was, essentially, none of the UK’s business and thus not for the UK to join in helping to solve, it quickly grasped that a meltdown of the euro would be highly damaging to the British as well as to the European economies.
So from quite an early stage Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, urged the euro zone to take whatever steps were necessary to resolve the crisis, including pushing for deeper political and fiscal integration from which the UK would stand aside. This was a big change from traditional British policy, which had always been to remain as closely involved as possible in all EU and euro-zone actions, often in the hope of slowing them down as much as possible.
This was still, however, not enough for Cameron’s Eurosceptic backbenchers. Frightened also by the growing appeal of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), which stood explicitly for withdrawal from the European Union, they still craved some kind of confrontation. They were granted their wish in December 2011 when the European Council wished to adopt the fiscal compact, a treaty cementing new rules on fiscal policy and also requiring national governments to insert “debt brakes” limiting budget deficits into their constitutions. Cameron came to Brussels threatening to veto this treaty unless he was given assurances protecting the City of London from possible future changes in financial regulations. Yet when he tabled his suggestions, the other governments ignored his request and simply adopted the fiscal compact as an inter-governmental treaty outside the normal EU framework. Nor did Cameron win much support in his refusal to sign up: ultimately 25 countries ratified the fiscal compact, including eight non-euro members, leaving only the UK and the Czech Republic as non-signatories (although the Czechs now plan to sign too).
Even that was not the end of Cameron’s European adventures. He took the hardest possible line on negotiations over the 2014–20 EU budget that went by the unlovely name of the “multiannual financial framework”. Rather than reopening the question of what the EU budget was for and whether it could be spent more efficaciously, a goal that might have been easier to achieve had he been willing to give up some of the UK rebate, he set himself the public goal of simply cutting the budget in real terms. With support from Merkel, he eventually got his way, but at the price not just of preserving farm spending broadly intact but also annoying both the European Parliament and potential central
European allies like Poland.
The budget wrangle did little to improve the mood of Eurosceptics in the Tory party. They still wanted some commitment to renegotiate the UK’s membership and promise voters an in/out referendum. Cameron fended off the pressure for as long as he could, but eventually he felt that he had to set out his plans. In his so-called Bloomberg speech in January 2013 (given in London after repeated failed efforts to find a suitable continental location), he called for substantial reforms to the EU, including less regulation, a completion of the single market, a more growth-enhancing agenda and a streamlined bureaucracy. He rejected the idea that the UK might adopt the Norwegian or Swiss options of being outside the EU but subject to most of its rules. He suggested a bigger role for national parliaments and some (unspecified) passing of powers back from European to national level. Although he carefully avoided specific British demands, he announced the establishment of a new audit of EU competences to see whether and where policy areas had stretched too much (thus far it has found remarkably few cases). And he added that at the next election his party would campaign for these reforms to be made by 2017 and, on the basis of a reformed EU, put the issue of the UK’s continuing membership to a referendum.6
Back to ins and outs
This is where the UK’s argument over its future impinges both on the future of the euro and on the relationship between ins and outs. Cameron may not win enough votes in 2015 to form a single-party government, so his threat to hold a referendum in 2017 may become moot. Both the other main party leaders are refusing to offer a referendum unless there is a substantial new treaty transferring powers to Brussels, but pressure on them is likely to grow. Either way, questions about the UK’s continuing membership are likely to persist. Yet the attention of most other European leaders will continue to be focused more on fixing the euro crisis than on what sort of concessions to keep the UK in the EU might be acceptable.
Most EU leaders, especially Merkel, would like to keep the UK in. Moreover, several countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark as well as Germany, are sympathetic to much of Cameron’s agenda. There is a general desire to cut back excessive EU regulation and to rein in the European Commission and European Parliament. Yet there is a limit to the changes other countries might be willing to make to keep the UK in, and certainly no desire to give it special opt-outs or other arrangements that might benefit one country at the apparent expense of others. And there is a concern that, whatever is offered to the UK, its voters might choose to leave the EU anyway, an eventuality that somewhat weakens British bargaining power in negotiating a new deal.
What might clinch that outcome is any growth in feeling that the euro-zone ins are determined to go ahead with integrationist measures, including possibly further changes applying to them alone, that ignore the wishes or interests of non-euro countries. By not joining the euro, the British government has shown itself to be content to be in the outer circle of a Europe of concentric circles. But that does not inevitably have to mean being left on the fringes of all policy- and decision-making. In his first big speech on Europe in January 2014, Osborne expressed his own concerns about the outs being discriminated against, adding that without reform, the UK might face the choice between joining the euro, which it would never do, and leaving the EU. Perhaps ironically, given this worry, he also suggested that in some cases actions to deepen the single market could be taken by using enhanced cooperation. 7
If the outs are to feel protected, however, policies in areas as diverse as the single market, the environment, taxation, trade and transport should largely continue to be made at 28, as more obviously should foreign and security policy. If Merkel and her allies accept the idea of making policy in any of these areas at 18, the risk of the UK’s exit from the broader EU can only increase, as Osborne argued. The broader worries of the outs would increase as well. The French “Eiffel” group has proposed strengthening euro-zone institutions, making this problem potentially even worse. All this suggests that an important part of the agenda for euro-zone countries in the next few years should be a better arrangement of relations between ins and outs.
The fear of outs that in future policies may be made by ins without their having much or even any say echoes a broader fear of voters: that increasingly the European Union and the euro zone are deciding matters without sufficient democratic control. As the euro zone integrates further and more intrusively, it is running into a huge potential row about the legitimacy and democratic accountability of its actions. Indeed, it is this, rather than the financial markets, that could pose one of the biggest risks to the EU’s future.
7. The changing balance of power
AS WELL AS CONSTITUTING THE MOST SERIOUS CHALLENGE to the European project since its inception, the euro crisis has had a huge impact on its political and economic balance, at every level. Among countries, it has hugely increased the influence of some, notably Germany, and decreased that of others, notably France. It has fostered a growing north–south divide in the European Union, which has to an extent replaced the previous east–west one. It has sharpened the division between those countries that are in the euro and those that are not. Among the EU institutions, it has strengthened the role of the European Council at the expense of the European Commission and the European Parliament. And although it has led to deeper integration of sorts, especially in fiscal policy, it has also reduced the political weight of the central EU bodies and increased that of national governments. Many if not all of these shifts in power will endure. Most will profoundly affect the workings of the wider EU as well as the euro zone.
Start with the institutions. Throughout the history of the European project, the balance of power among them and between them and national governments has altered, sometimes for structural reasons, sometimes as a reflection of individual personalities. In its early years the Commission was especially important: many new rules and directives were needed, there was no directly elected parliament and European leaders did not yet meet in the European Council. Yet the French president, Charles de Gaulle, who mistrusted the Commission and much preferred inter-governmentalism, was hugely important. It was de Gaulle who in 1965 precipitated the “empty chair” crisis when France refused to accept a treaty-prescribed move towards majority voting in the Council of Ministers. After a long French boycott of EU meetings, the eventual outcome was the 1966 Luxembourg compromise which, at least according to the French interpretation (now shared by the British), preserves the national veto if a country invokes its “vital national interests” even in legislation meant to be decided by the system of qualified-majority voting enshrined in the Rome treaty and later strengthened in the Single European Act.
The influence and power of later Commissions have fluctuated, but the institution reached its apogee under the presidency of Jacques Delors after 1984. He was a driving force behind both the single market and the single currency; indeed, in the late 1980s he turned into a hate-figure for British anti-Europeans (and for Margaret Thatcher) after he addressed the Trades Union Congress in 1988. He was hugely important for the adoption of EMU. Yet his influence in Brussels had diminished long before he stepped down from the job, somewhat disillusioned, in 1994.1 And neither of his first two successors as Commission president, Jacques Santer and Romano Prodi, was able to re-establish the institution’s previous pre-eminence.
When the Portuguese Prime Minister, José Manuel Barroso, took over as Commission president in 2004, he allied himself firmly with liberalising countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Germany (while not neglecting the interests of his own country). Under him the Commission has continued to play a crucial role in providing analysis, implementing the rules and drawing up legislative compromises, as well as protecting the interests of smaller countries and of a wider Europe. But it has proved hard to restore the Commission’s political clout at a time of rising scepticism in public views of the European Union. Many national governments have come to see the Commission as too keen on petty regulation and too ready to appease the European Parliament, moving away from its supposedly neutral position between Parliament and Council – a perception that is likely to grow now that, under the Lisbon treaty, the Parliament has been given the explicit role of “electing” the Commission president after he or she has been nominated by heads of government.2
As the Commission’s political influence has waned, the Parliament’s has waxed. Besides its new role in the choice of a new president, the co-decision procedure for almost all legislation under the Lisbon treaty has given it extra powers. In its work on the new excessive-deficits procedure during the euro crisis, the Parliament played a positive role, especially over the new six- and two-pack legislation, which its economic and monetary affairs committee under a British MEP, Sharon Bowles, helped to shape. Yet national governments and EU leaders, even those traditionally keen to give the Parliament more powers, are nowadays increasingly disillusioned with it. This was especially obvious during repeated rows over the EU budget and the multi-annual financial framework during 2013: the Parliament’s instinctive push for even more EU spending than the Commission had asked for won it few friends among net contributor countries. The growing presence of populist and extremist parties in the Parliament, while making it more representative, will not improve its image with national governments.3
The biggest winner from the euro crisis among the EU institutions has been the European Council of heads of state and government, because it brings together the 28 national leaders. That is partly because Herman Van Rompuy, the little-known, haiku-writing Belgian prime minister who was picked to be the European Council’s first permanent president (and was promptly accused by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, of having “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”), has in fact proved an adept choice. As an economist from a euro-zone country, he was good at diagnosing the euro’s ills; he has often pointed to the madness of not watching more carefully the rise in current-account deficits. From his background in Belgian politics he has also learnt the art of political compromise. His ability to speak English, French and German, shared also with Jean-Claude Juncker, who chaired the Eurogroup, has been useful. The jobs of European Council and Eurogroup summit president (which he added) have become more significant partly because of how he has done them. And, for the most part, he has forged a good working relationship with Barroso, with the Commission continuing to provide much of the technical and legal support for the work of the European Council.
The main reason the European Council is where the action now happens is that the euro crisis has increased the clout of national governments. This is largely because only national governments can command the resources needed to bail out excessively indebted countries or banks. It is also because, to raise the necessary money, most governments have needed to secure the consent of their national parliaments. In effect, the euro crisis has laid bare a tendency that could be detected long before 2009.
This is that national governments and their leaders (with an increasingly large role played by finance ministers at the expense of foreign ministers, formerly the main actors in Brussels) have become the driving force of the euro zone and, by extension, of the EU as a whole.
Broad political power is thus shifting from the supranational European institutions and towards national governments thanks to the euro crisis. Yet at the same time many more intrusive powers are being vested at the EU level, because the euro zone has been forced to move in the direction of greater political as well as economic integration. The ECB is taking on the supervision of most euro-zone banks, for example, and it will also gain the power to require them to increase their capital or, in some cases, to shut them down. As part of the European semester, the Commission is getting extensive new monitoring powers, including the possibility of sanctions, over national budgets. The Parliament is arrogating to itself the job of scrutinising contracts for reform that are being debated and could yet be drawn up between national governments and Brussels. What explains the paradoxical combination of greater intrusive powers within the euro zone and the declining influence of the EU institutions?
The answer is to be found in the shifting balance of power among EU countries, which is perhaps where the greatest impact of the euro crisis can be seen. The underlying fiction of the European project from the beginning was that member countries were broadly equal. Most institutions worked on the basis of one representative per country, although until the Nice treaty big countries were entitled to two commissioners. Admittedly, qualified-majority voting in the Council gave more weight to big than to small countries, but the system was still biased towards the small – and the most important decisions were almost always taken unanimously. Seats in the Parliament do reflect population size, but even there small countries have tended to be overrepresented (Malta has proportionately five times as many MEPs as Germany).
Yet despite all this, the notion of equality within the EU remains largely false. In practice, two countries have always acted as the principal engine in the European motor: France and Germany. Italy, the other big country in the original six, has never been able to match the clout of these two, partly because for many years its political system led to frequent elections and innumerable changes of prime minister, and partly because, after a long period of catch-up growth that lasted into the 1980s, its economic performance has been so dismal. Although the Netherlands has occasionally dissented, and has also in recent years turned noticeably more sceptical towards the European institutions, the Benelux trio have generally been willing to go along with Franco-German leadership. It has been hard for any newcomers, including largish countries such as the UK, Spain and Poland, to break in.
In the early years of the European project, especially after the Elysée treaty of 1963 that cemented links between the two countries, it was France that saw itself as in the lead politically, leaving the then West Germany to pay most of the bills. Indeed, this was one reason the French were reluctant to let the UK join in the early 1960s: in the words of the French foreign minister at the time, they did not want another cock on the dunghill. The EU institutions, including commissioners and their cabinets, were largely designed on French lines. The Commission’s first secretary-general was French. The common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy, the customs union and the budget were all drawn up in many ways to the benefit of the French at the expense of the Germans (and, sotto voce, of the British when they were eventually let into the club in 1973).
By then the relationship across the Rhine had become more one of equals, as (West) German economic power asserted itself. The response of successive French presidents and German chancellors was to forge still closer bilateral links, even though they often came from opposing political families: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing with Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterrand with Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac with Gerhard Schröder. It became understood that, if France and Germany could agree on something, so (most of the time) could the rest. Even when the personal relationship was scratchy, the institutional bond between the two countries was close. The UK’s attempts to insert itself into a possible trilateral relationship usually failed: the prime minister who came closest to pulling this off was Tony Blair, but his European credentials were tarnished when the UK declined to join the euro, and even more so when he later backed George Bush’s war in Iraq, vehemently opposed by both the French and German leaders.
By this time, however, the Franco-German relationship was becoming more obviously lopsided. The turning point came with German unification in 1990, which made Germany significantly bigger than France both in population and in economic weight. That was indeed one reason Mitterrand pushed so hard for a single European currency: he hoped that it would give France more say in economic and monetary policy, which was increasingly being dictated for all EU members by the German Bundesbank. But as the years went by, it became ever more obvious that the Franco-German relationship had become a mechanism that was deployed to disguise German strength and French weakness.
There was a brief respite at the start of the euro when the German economy looked particularly weak, partly because Germany had joined the euro at a relatively high parity. The Economist, echoing Hans-Werner Sinn, a German economist, called Germany the sick man of Europe as recently as 2003.4
But German industry responded to the challenge by determinedly cutting costs and holding down wages, while the Schröder government’s Agenda 2010 reforms of the labour market and welfare system increased the German economy’s flexibility. Rising demand from China for German-made machine tools and other products also boosted German exports. The result was that, by the time the euro crisis broke out openly in 2009–10, the gap in economic and financial strength between the two leading countries in the euro had become gapingly wide.
This presented a big new challenge to the next incarnation of the dual leadership, after May 2007: Nicolas Sarkozy as French president and Angela Merkel as German chancellor. True to form and despite both coming from the centre-right, their relationship got off to a rocky start, not least because they were polar opposites in style. Sarkozy is a nervy, hyperactive showman. Merkel was a cautious, somewhat dour scientist. The two were known to find each other unbearable even though they had to work together – in English, no less, because neither spoke the other’s language. They quickly clashed after Sarkozy became president when he floated plans for a new “Mediterranean Union” that appeared to be meant to exclude Germany. But it was the global financial crisis that really tested them. At first France seemed to fare better during the crunch than Germany (and indeed the UK), with a much smaller loss of GDP in 2008–09.5 Along with the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, Sarkozy played a big role in meetings of the G8 and G20 that tried to co-ordinate an international fiscal boost to stop the crisis turning an inevitable recession into a deep 1930s-style depression. At one point, he even cheekily announced to the press that France was acting while Germany was merely thinking about it. But when the euro crisis erupted in 2010 the structural weakness and relatively greater indebtedness of France compared with Germany soon became a huge problem. Like so many of his predecessors, Sarkozy’s response was to try to get closer to Merkel. He played up France’s AAA rating as a key asset underpinning the successive rescue funds that had to be devised for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and later Spain and Cyprus. He and Merkel joined forces to suggest policy changes such as, at Deauville in October 2010, the involuntary involvement of the private sector in future debt restructurings. He pushed German-inspired fiscal austerity and did not press hard for an immediate agreement to the issuance of Eurobonds. The markets began to talk of “Merkozy” as the key tandem seeking to steer the euro zone out of its debt and growth crises. And the two leaders played a crucial role in 2011 in engineering the departures of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece and their replacement by technocrat-led governments.
Yet as the crisis dragged on, the pretence that France counted as much as Germany wore thin. Increasingly, it was the chancellery, the Bundestag and the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe, as well as public opinion in Germany, that were doing the most to determine the shape and speed of the euro zone’s various rescue packages. As other countries, especially but not only those that had been bailed out, cut public spending, reduced budget deficits and pushed through structural reforms, an unchanged and unchanging France seemed to be turning into part of the problem rather than part of the solution. To Sarkozy’s embarrassment, France lost its first AAA rating in early 2011. And then, in May 2012, he lost the presidential election to the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.
Hollande was a stronger pro-European than Sarkozy, as well as being easier to deal with on a personal level. Although he came from the opposite political camp to Merkel, he was on the right of his Socialist Party. Yet as the man who led the party when it split over the referendum on the EU’s constitutional treaty in 2005, he was wary of any new treaty changes that the Germans might seek. Moreover, before his election he spoke out strongly against Merkel’s austerity policies and in favour of more growth; he wanted to see some form of debt mutualisation, which was anathema to Merkel; and during the campaign he said next to nothing about the need for structural reforms or public spending cuts at home, instead proposing tax increases, including a new 75% top rate of income tax.6
After he came to power, far from seeking to reinvigorate the Franco-German axis, he tried to make common cause with the Italian and Spanish leaders in urging more growth-oriented policies in place of excessive austerity.
The response from Germany was frigid in the extreme. After two years of crisis-fighting, the last thing Merkel wanted was to see a weakened France deserting the “northern” camp of creditor countries like Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland and joining instead the “southern” camp of debtors, whose instinctive answer to any problem was to borrow and spend more. France, it was noted darkly in Germany, had not balanced its budget since 1974. One reason the Germans decided during 2012 that it would be too dangerous to let any country, even Greece, leave the euro was because they feared that it might lead to the currency eventually unraveling all the way up to the Rhine.
In short, France had now become, in German eyes, part of the problem and not of the solution. At a budget summit in February 2013 Hollande was so distant from the German position that he even failed to show up for a bilateral meeting with Merkel, something unheard of before. As one observer of EU summits noted, everybody always stopped to listen to Merkel; nobody paid any attention when Hollande took the floor, instead fiddling with their Blackberries and iPhones. The marginalisation of France is also denting public opinion in that country, which is increasingly turning against both the euro and the EU. The French industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, has taken to attacking the EU for its “free-market fundamentalism”. Another striking example even among the pro-European elite was a 2013 book by François Heisbourg, from the Foundation for Strategic Research, in which he argued that the euro should be scrapped in order to preserve the European Union.7
In effect, Europe once again has what historians have called a German problem (with plenty of reason to hope that the solution will be more peaceful than in the past). The revival of a German problem is not at all comfortable for Merkel. Following the departure of Jean-Claude Juncker as prime minister of Luxembourg in late 2013 and of Estonia’s Anders Ansip in 2014, she is the longest-serving national leader in the EU. With France so weak and Hollande so ineffectual, she is also the unchallenged head of the northern creditor camp in Europe. And with German unemployment and youth unemployment both at 20-year lows, GDP back above pre-crisis levels, a budget close to balance and a continuing huge current-account surplus, her country is the uncontested economic hegemon of Europe. France and Italy are, at best, bystanders; at worst, largely irrelevant.
Yet Germany remains a reluctant hegemon, not least for historical reasons. Its foreign and defence policies are inward-looking, commercially driven and instinctively pacifist, unlike the UK’s and France’s. Merkel may enjoy wielding power in Europe, and being seen by the rest of the world as the continent’s most important leader, but neither she nor her country is entirely happy being treated too openly as such. Post-war German chancellors have traditionally seen more Europe as the answer to the German problem. But to critics of Merkel, especially during the euro crisis, her call for more Europe has often seemed like a call for a more German Europe, an effort to transform all euro-zone countries into mini-Germanys. The sensitivity this arouses was well demonstrated in November 2011 when a public claim by Volker Kauder, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, that “suddenly, Europe is speaking German” was swiftly disowned by most of his colleagues.8
Germany, in short, remains highly attuned to outside criticism. It also has many blind spots economically. This not only embraces the crude caricatures of Merkel with a moustache and talk of a new Third Reich that are seen and heard in Greece and elsewhere. It also includes more serious complaints from the likes of the IMF and the US Treasury that Germany relies too much on exports and too little on domestic consumption for growth; and that, by running such a large current-account surplus, determinedly holding down wages and failing to generate sufficient internal demand, the Germans contributed to the problems of the euro zone in the first place.
Such claims are vigorously rejected in Germany. Ever since the Greek crisis erupted in late 2009, the Germans have seen two roots of the problem: fiscal profligacy and a loss of competitiveness. On this diagnosis, the cure for the first is public-spending cuts and tax rises; for the second, it is structural reforms to labour and product markets to reduce unit labour costs and restore competitiveness.
Germany has long kept its public finances under better control than others and it also pushed through the Agenda 2010 reforms in 2003. Other euro-zone countries simply have to copy this example. The notion that Germany might need to do more, for instance increasing wages or public spending, or boosting domestic investment, is often greeted with disbelief. German business, it is said in reply, must compete on a global stage; trying to rebalance within Europe by making it less competitive externally would be disastrous for the entire continent. That the coalition agreement in Germany may have this effect, by introducing a high minimum wage and lowering the retirement age for certain workers, reflects politics rather than policy choices.
As Merkel has come increasingly to be the main or even only voice that counts in the euro crisis, she has also become more dubious about the value of the EU institutions. Admittedly, she has quietly sided with the ECB against criticisms from the Bundesbank, even when two of her most loyal lieutenants, Axel Weber and Jürgen Stark, resigned in protest. But she has dragged her feet on banking union, and her response to calls from the Commission or from other European countries for debt mutualisation has been cold. For her, keeping in line with public opinion at home and satisfying both the Bundestag and the constitutional court in Karlsruhe matter far more than any dreamy euro federalist vision. She has at times been criticised by such predecessors as Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt for this. The current coalition agreement suggests a number of changes to the Commission, including reducing its propensity to regulate.
It must be conceded that, at least for Merkel, this approach to Europe has worked wonders. For all the brickbats hurled at her, especially from abroad, for being too slow to move, too eager to impose austerity on the Mediterranean, too unwilling to boost demand at home and too leery of explaining to Germans how much they would lose if the euro were to break up, she has retained enormous popularity at home. Almost all other euro-zone countries have seen their leaders pushed out by voters as a result of the euro crisis. Merkel, however, took an impressive 42% of the vote in the federal election in September 2013, and she has since gone on to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats that clearly leaves her and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in charge of German policy on the euro. German voters, it seems, instinctively trust her both to do the right thing and to protect their interests.
Mediterranean angst, northern bravado
Worries about French weakness and about being lonely at the top have prompted the Germans to look around for other potential partners in the European Union. The UK is out, as it is seen as too semidetached from the project. The Mediterranean countries are also broadly no good. Most of them have received help from European bail-out funds and are still struggling to comply with their reform programmes and sort out their banks. Spain is likely to be the first to come good but still faces severe economic and political difficulties. Only Ireland has become the German poster-child for how a bailed-out country can change itself.
Italy is the perpetual underperformer in the EU: a big economy, second only to Germany in manufacturing, but seemingly incapable of reforming itself to regain lost competitiveness. Alone among euro-zone countries its income per head is lower now than when the euro began in 1999.
During his brief technocratic administration in 2011–12, Mario Monti promised to be a firm ally of Merkel’s, and he tried, with only partial success, to push through structural reforms, including to pensions. But at EU meetings he tended to side with those criticising Germany for not doing enough to boost domestic demand and the ECB for failing to act to lower interest rates in the periphery. Italy has raditionally favoured ever-closer union in Europe, on the basis that many Italians prefer rule from Brussels to rule from Rome, but such an approach is now out of favour in Germany.
Monti was forced to call an election in February 2013 in which he did badly. After complex bargaining, Enrico Letta, the young deputy leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, succeeded in putting together a broad coalition together with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party and a scattering of centrists – the same broad coalition that had backed Monti. The country came out of its excessive deficit procedure in June, giving Letta a political boost, but Italy’s politics remained as dysfunctional as ever. Letta found it no easier to enact reforms than did Monti. He survived an attempt by Berlusconi to bring down the government in October, just before the old rogue lost his parliamentary immunity following conviction on charges of fraud. Berlusconi’s move backfired; instead of bringing down the government, his own PdL party split, with a faction of moderates sticking with Letta. But Letta then faced a deadlier challenge from his own side. The turbo-charged former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, took over the leadership of the Democratic Party in December, and then pushed Letta out of power in February 2014.
Like Monti, Letta had been popular with Merkel partly because he was not Berlusconi and partly because he understood the case for structural reforms at home. But Merkel was never confident of seeing much in the way of radical reform from his baggy left-right coalition. It remains to be seen what she will make of Renzi. This young and energetic new leader is now widely seen both inside and outside Italy as the last great hope of his country’s reformers. But his coalition is not much stronger than Letta’s, and he is vulnerable to the charge of being yet another unelected leader imposed on Italian voters.
That leaves the northern group in the euro zone, most of which are natural allies of Germany. Austria, Finland and Luxembourg are the only other AAA-rated countries that help to sustain the rating of euro-zone rescue funds. But all are small. The Dutch and Finns usually support German calls for austerity. Yet the Netherlands was downgraded in 2013 as the Dutch economy struggled to overcome the after-effects of a housing bust. The eastern newcomers to the euro, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and (from January 2014) Latvia, are small countries as well, and Slovenia has hovered on the brink of needing a bail-out for its indebted banks. However, these two groups give powerful support to the broad German narrative, which is that the cure for the euro crisis is to be found in fiscal austerity and structural reform at home. The Baltic countries, especially Latvia, went through almost as wrenching an adjustment in the early 2000s as Greece, and without provoking riots. They are among the strongest advocates that other heavily indebted countries should follow suit. Latvia’s is now the fastest-growing economy in the EU.
What the euro crisis has clearly done is to break what used to be the EU’s east–west division. Most of the countries that joined in 2004, and even more so Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007, remain significantly poorer than the others, but they are catching up as they benefit from EU structural funds. The new economic and political division in Europe is increasingly a north–south one. This is potentially troubling for the entire project. For its first 50 years until 2007, it always functioned on the basis that it was bringing about convergence between member countries. Since the euro crisis hit, the pattern has been more one of divergence. And that could easily stir up still more popular resentment of the EU in the south.
Germany is also looking to some non-euro countries as potential new partners, especially Poland and, to a lesser extent, Sweden. Indeed, were Poland to join the single currency, it is not too fanciful to see it vying with France and the UK as Germany’s main allies (French suspicion of eastern enlargement was often attributable to its worry about losing influence within the club to Germany). Bilateral German–Polish relations are warmer than they have been in 500 years. Merkel respects Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, so much that she briefly toyed with putting him forward for the Commission presidency. Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, has been widely touted as a candidate for one of the top EU jobs, at least since his notable November 2011 speech in Berlin when he announced that he was “probably the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity”.9
The increasing influence of Poland does, however, throw the spotlight on the remaining big division in the EU, besides an economic north-south one. This is between the 18 euro-zone ins and the ten outs. As the euro zone pursues deeper political integration, including of fiscal policy and banking regulation, and even toys with setting up its own separate institutions, it is becoming increasingly clear that the single currency is the most important subgroup in the broader European club. That raises huge dangers for the maintenance of the wider single market at 28, and especially for the position of the most recalcitrant country of all: the UK.
6. Super Mario
A SPIKED PRUSSIAN MILITARY HELMET , a Pickelhaube, decorates Mario Draghi’s office on the 35th floor of the Eurotower in Frankfurt, the headquarters of the ECB. It was a gift from the editors of Bild, a German tabloid newspaper, intended as both a compliment to his reputation as “the most German” of the candidates to run the central bank (after the resignation of Axel Weber) and a warning to the former Italian central banker not to let down his guard against inflation. As he took charge of the ECB at a time of great peril for the euro zone he had to act boldly, though he knew he could ill-afford to allow austere northerners to accuse him of turning the ECB, the heir to the uncompromising Bundesbank, into a European version of the Banca d’Italia.
Replacing Jean-Claude Trichet in November 2011, Draghi brought a new style. His meetings were shorter, he delegated much more responsibility to colleagues and, having spent time at Goldman Sachs, he was more in tune with markets than his predecessor, as well as rather less stuffy. His first act in November (and also in December) was to reverse his predecessor’s misjudged rate rises earlier in the year, catching most analysts by surprise. It was a hint that, instead of being compelled to respond to events, he would try to change the market’s expectations. The fiscal compact he had asked for also gave him political cover for a bolder move: the provision of vast amounts of emergency liquidity for Europe’s banking system, called Long Term Refinancing Operations (LTRO). Banks and sovereigns were facing a large refinancing hump in 2012, and banks were running short of collateral.
Draghi acted to prevent any funding “accidents” that might be the spark for another crisis. The first wave of cash was announced just before the December 9th summit that endorsed the fiscal compact. The second wave was released in February 2012. In all, the ECB provided €1 trillion worth of three-year loans at a 1% interest rate, and also eased collateral requirements. Nicolas Sarkozy gleefully let everybody know that the banks, especially in southern Europe, would use much of the money to buy high-yielding sovereign bonds; in other words, this was bond-buying through the back door of the banks. Yet the “Sarkozy trade”, as it came to be known, did not save France from losing its AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) in January. Eight other euro-zone countries were also downgraded. By leaving Germany as its only AAA-rated euro-zone sovereign with a “stable” outlook, S&P destroyed the symbolic parity between Germany and France. Europe’s dividing line shifted from the Alps and the Pyrenees to the Rhine. Moreover, by chastising so many, S&P made clear that the problem was not just individual countries, but the euro zone as a whole. The October summit deal had been inadequate and did not provide enough support for troubled states. It said: 1 The outcomes from the EU summit on Dec. 9, 2011, and subsequent statements from policymakers, lead us to believe that the agreement reached has not produced a breakthrough of sufficient size and scope to fully address the euro zone’s financial problems… We also believe that the agreement is predicated on only a partial recognition of the source of the crisis: that the current financial turmoil stems primarily from fiscal profligacy at the periphery of the eurozone. In our view, however, the financial problems facing the euro zone are as much a consequence of rising external imbalances and divergences in competitiveness between the euro zone’s core and the so-called “periphery”. As such, we believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.
Over the following weeks Draghi’s cash would ease the spasm. The euro zone breathed more easily. Bond yields for Italy and Spain dropped markedly, by about 250 and 90 basis points respectively between January and March. The long-drawn-out second Greek bailout, with its large haircut on privately held government bonds, was concluded in February and markets seemed unconcerned by the triggering of credit-default swaps that had once been so feared.
Draghi quietly retired Trichet’s official bond-buying operation in February. Yet no sooner had he told Bild in March 2012 that “the worst is over” than the crisis entered another, more perilous phase. The LTRO drug was wearing off, and the euro zone had entered a double-dip recession at the end of 2011, caused in part by the previous year’s turmoil. Markets’ concern shifted from the deficit to shrinking output, that is, from the numerator to the denominator in the ratio of borrowing to GDP.
The pain in Spain
Through the crisis the spread of a country’s bond yields over German ones has been the temperature chart of the euro zone’s sickness. The spread in bond yields between Italy and Spain tells its own story of comparative illness. Before the credit crunch, Italian bonds would yield 10–20 basis points more than Spanish ones. In January 2010 the lines flipped, in part because conservative Italian banks seemed in better shape than Spanish ones, crippled as they were by the property crash. In August 2011, though, Italy was again the riskier bet as Silvio Berlusconi’s government began to collapse. In March 2012, the order was inverted once more.
There were two main reasons for the latest switch. First, Italy’s Mario Monti became the darling of Europe, feted in Germany and the United States alike. Monti, some officials said, was Italy’s real firewall. In Spain, meanwhile, doubts spread about the credibility of the new conservative government of Mariano Rajoy, even though it had been resoundingly elected in November 2011 on a promise of tough deficit-cutting and structural reforms. Second, Spain’s economy and its banks were taking a turn for the worse.
In late February Spain announced it would miss its 2011 deficit target by a surprisingly wide margin, 8.5% of GDP instead of 6%. On March 2nd Rajoy unilaterally changed the 2012 target to 5.8%, instead of the EU-mandated 4.4%. That he made the announcement on the margins of an EU summit at which 25 leaders signed the fiscal compact recommitting governments to budget discipline, informing nobody of his move, caused much irritation; a feeling heightened by the fact that he withheld publication of his 2012 budget until after a regional election in Andalusia to be held at the end of the month (his party lost anyway).
Spain’s woes caused a deeper rethink among European policymakers. Spain gave strong cause to question the diagnosis of the euro’s problems. This was not a case of profligacy, as in Greece, or reckless “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, as in Ireland. Spain had run a budget surplus before the crisis and had boasted of having one of the best financial regulatory systems. Moreover, Spain’s persistent budget deficit raised questions about the favoured prescription of hard, front-loaded austerity. In April the IMF published the first of a series of studies suggesting that fiscal multipliers, which measure how badly growth would be affected by budget austerity, were larger than expected in circumstances, such as those of the euro zone, in which interest rates were close to zero, credit was tight and neighboring countries were all cutting their deficits. The Fund urged euro-zone countries to slow the pace of fiscal consolidation.
Above all, the alarming state of Spain’s banks highlighted a facet of the crisis that had been semi neglected: the banking crisis of 2009, masked by the panic over sovereign debt, had not been resolved. In fact the two were interconnected. In Greece the bankrupt sovereign was bringing down the banks. In Ireland, and increasingly now Spain, bust banks were endangering the sovereign. The outflow of capital that Spain had suffered from the summer of 2011 abruptly accelerated pace in March 2012. Spain’s financial regulator had proved unable or unwilling to clean up banks wrecked by bad property loans. Across the euro zone, and beyond, banking was one of the last bastions of protection within the EU. Regulators treated banks as national champions. They were reluctant to reveal losses, either for lack of money to recapitalise banks, or for fear that they would be taken over by foreigners.
Often governments wanted to avoid rescued banks being forced to divest themselves of assets under state-aid rules designed to preserve fair competition. By mid-2012, say EU officials, national regulators had overestimated bank assets in almost all cases the Commission had investigated, probably in an attempt to mask the scale of public assistance. Repeated stress tests conducted by the European Banking Authority had been discredited: in July 2011 it gave a clean bill of health to Dexia, a French-Belgian group that was bailed out in October 2011, and to Spain’s Bankia, part-nationalised in May 2012. The LTRO money had provided brief relief, but by encouraging banks to buy more bonds had worsened the deadly feedback loop.
In sum, Spain provided strong evidence that the problem was not just the behaviour of individual countries, or the enforcement of fiscal rules. Instead, it was property bubbles, imbalances and the unstable structure of the euro zone. Indeed, the euro zone found itself in the grip of three separate crises – banking, sovereign debt and growth – with each connected to the other through destabilizing feedback loops. Figure 6.1 shows how premiums for credit-default swaps for Spanish sovereign bonds and Spanish banks closely followed each other. Weak banks endangered sovereigns that were called upon to save them, and weak sovereigns endangered banks holding bonds at risk of default. Recession worsened the debt ratio, but austerity to reduce borrowing suppressed growth, or caused even worse recession. Federal governments attenuate such doom-loops by providing fiscal transfers (for example, through unemployment benefits) and dealing with shocks to the financial system. But the euro zone had no budget or central authority.
One response was gradually to ease austerity. Already the second Greek programme in February had relaxed the pace of fiscal consolidation and softened repayment terms on bail-out loans. In late May, despite the irritation with Rajoy’s antics, the Commission gave Spain an extra year to meet its deficit target of 3% of GDP by 2014, instead of 2013. In June it was given a partial bail-out when finance ministers agreed in principle to lend it up to €100 billion to help clean up and recapitalise its banks. Unlike Greece, Spain was given only “light” conditions, and the sum included a generous safety margin to address unforeseen needs. But the deal had little impact on borrowing costs. And now Spain’s troubles were once again pushing up Italy’s bond yields.
Europe à I’Hollandaise
The election on May 6th 2012 of a Socialist president in France, François Hollande, who had campaigned on an anti-austerity platform, was greeted with mixed feelings: hope that the Merkozy diktat would end, but also worry that the untested Merk Holland might lead to paralysis or worse. There was not much of a honeymoon. On the same day, Greek voters crushed both main centrist parties, the centre-right New Democracy and especially the Socialist Pasok. The old giants barely mustered 30% of the vote between them. It was, in a sense, as if the abortive referendum that cost George Papandreou his job had been held after all. But having expressed their revulsion with the political elite, Greek voters were less clear about what should replace it. Votes were scattered among anti-austerity factions ranging from the Stalinist left to the neo-Nazi right. A second ballot was called in June to break the stalemate, amid hopes that the Greeks would behave rather like the French: voting with their hearts in the first round but with their heads in the second.
Hollande soon cast himself as the champion of the south. His promise to renegotiate the fiscal compact was fobbed off with a “growth compact” that was little more than a repackaging of several modest and pre-existing European spending initiatives. He also revived the idea of Eurobonds. It was unfair that Spain had to borrow at 6% while Germany could do so almost free of interest, said Hollande at an informal EU summit to welcome him on May 23rd. But Angela Merkel would not hear of debt mutualisation. That evening Herman Van Rompuy appointed himself to write a report with a vague remit to find ways of deepening euro-zone integration. It would look not only at Eurobonds but also, crucially, at “more integrated banking supervision and resolution, and a common deposit insurance scheme”.
The idea of a “banking union”, as an alternative to the “fiscal union” pushed by France, was thus taking shape as a response to the Spanish crisis. Economists had long argued that, in an integrated financial market, centralised European authorities should be responsible for supervising banks and for winding them up when they failed. In February 2011 a paper by Bruegel, a Brussels think-tank, declared that “nothing less than supranational banking supervision and resolution bodies can handle the kind of financial interdependence that now exists in Europe”. Such ideas had been considered for Jacques de Larosière’s report on financial regulation in February 2009, but were deemed too ambitious. The new European supervisory authorities – three new regulators for banks, insurance and markets, and the European Systemic Risk Board to monitor threats to the overall financial system – that emerged from the report were little more than loose co-ordinating bodies.
A separate but related idea was the direct recapitalisation of troubled banks by the EFSF or the future ESM, to avoid the burden falling on vulnerable sovereigns. The concept had been pushed by the IMF in July 2011. France had also wanted to draw on the EFSF to recapitalise Dexia in October 2011 but had been turned down. In April 2012 the IMF returned to the charge, this time with a more detailed longer-term proposal for a single European supervisor with a single resolution authority and fund, and a Europe-wide deposit-guarantee scheme. By the end of May the chorus of supporters for “banking union” grew louder, as the ECB and the Commission joined in. Under the deliberately understated title of “integrated financial framework”, banking union was one of the four pillars of Van Rompuy’s June 26th report on the future of the euro, alongside fiscal union (including tighter budget controls and a timetable for Eurobonds), economic union (co-ordination of labour-market and other policies) and political union (to give democratic legitimacy and accountability to the other three pillars).2
The breakthrough came at a secret meeting of finance ministers from Germany, France, Italy and Spain and senior European officials, at the Sheraton Hotel next to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (for greater discretion) on June 26th. The discussion focused on another old French demand, that the firewall be boosted by giving the ESM a banking licence so it could borrow from the ECB. Changing tack, Pierre Moscovici, the new French finance minister, suggested direct bank recapitalisation by the ESM to help Spain. His German counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble, caused a stir when he suggested it might be possible – but only if there were direct supervision of banks. This was in line with Germany’s mantra: greater solidarity could only come with greater control. But would Merkel agree to any of this?
Two Super Marios
The European football championship, in which Italy met Germany in the semi-final at the national stadium in Warsaw on June 28th 2012, became a metaphor for the political battle taking place the same night in Brussels: north and south, discipline against guile, creditors versus debtors. The football-mad Merkel would step out of the meeting room to watch replays of key moments, such as Mario Balotelli’s winning goal for Italy in the 36th minute. In the summit she was confronted by another Super Mario, the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti. His game was a form of catenaccio, the unyielding Italian defence, played with his Spanish colleague. They stubbornly blocked agreement on the final communiqué, including Hollande’s “growth pact”, until the chancellor had agreed to their demands. Rajoy wanted the direct recapitalisation of Spanish banks by the EFSF; Monti wanted an automatic mechanism to help bring down the borrowing costs of vulnerable but “virtuous” countries (that is, Italy).
For Italy, in particular, this was an unusual change of behaviour. Berlusconi, though dominant for years in domestic politics, typically said very little at European summits. Now the technocrat who had succeeded him was daring to play hardball against the mighty Germans. The difference, perhaps, was down to the fact that Italy under Monti had regained some credibility, and therefore some room for manoeuvre. With some skilful bureaucratic midfield play by senior officials in Brussels, Monti and Rajoy got their way at around 4am, having overcome a sustained rearguard action by Finland and the Netherlands (one senior euro-zone official called these last two emmerdeurs, a fruity French word that translates roughly as “pains in the arse”.)
Thus the opening sentence of the euro-zone statement declared grandly: “We affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns.”3 Leaders agreed to set up a single supervisor, based at the ECB, to oversee the euro zone’s 6,000-odd banks. Thereafter, the rescue funds could be used to recapitalise troubled banks directly. Ireland was also promised unspecified help, in tacit recognition that it had been forced to take on much of its banks’ debts. The second concession was to allow the EFSF, and in future the ESM, to intervene to stabilise bond markets for members respecting a long list of European commitments without a full-blown troika-monitored programme.
Rajoy probably scored the winning goal on the night, but Monti was the playmaker. He certainly acted as the victor, as he emerged from the summit speaking teasingly about “many important discussions, sometimes tense, with many emotional aspects, often concentrated on football”; his supporters would later say that an oblique reference in the communique to the ECB’s role as an “agent” for bond-buying by the rescue funds was the harbinger of a bigger role for the ECB. Across Europe, newspapers could not resist parallels between Germany’s defeat in European football and Merkel’s concession in European politics. Pro-Berlusconi papers, no fans of Monti, were particularly crude. One showed Balotelli kicking a football in the shape of Merkel’s head; another splashed with the headline “Ciao, Ciao Culona” (“Bye Bye Fat Arse”), a reference to an intercepted phone call in which Berlusconi is alleged have described the German chancellor in particularly crude terms.4
The euro zone was crossing an important threshold: responsibility for the banks might now be shared. Some EU officials spoke of the summit as the most important act of integration since the Maastricht treaty. Of itself, the creation of a single supervisor would amount to a substantial surrender of national sovereignty. The change would be greater still if and when other pillars of banking union were created: a euro-zone resolution authority with access to a common pot of money to wind up bust banks; a single deposit-guarantee scheme; and a common fiscal backstop. The US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is set up along such lines, able to draw on a line of credit from the Treasury if necessary. From the start of the financial crisis to the end of 2013, it has wound up more than 400 (mostly small) banks, in contrast with a handful in Europe (and about 40 banks that have received state aid). Merkel may have told members of her coalition that she could not envisage wholesale Eurobonds in her lifetime. But joint liability of a different form might now come via the back door of the banks. In the end, the need for taxpayers ultimately to stand behind the banking system means that a real banking union would become a step towards a fiscal union.
Still not enough
Yet the euphoria in the markets was short-lived. Part of the blame lies with European leaders’ love of bickering. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, tried to peg back Monti’s exuberance, insisting countries would still face conditions if helped by the fund. Finland demanded collateral, and later seemed to muse about leaving the euro (officials said comments to this effect by Jutta Urpilainen, the finance minister, had been mistranslated). Germany put out the message that, even in the case of direct recapitalisation, national governments would be liable for any banking losses. And there was another worry. Germany’s constitutional court was due to deliver its verdict on the legality of the permanent new rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, in September. A negative decision would remove the euro zone’s safety net, inadequate as it may have been. More bad news came from Moody’s, a ratings agency, which announced it had placed the AAA credit rating of Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg on “negative outlook” because of the danger of financial instability if Greece left the euro, and the possible costs of helping Spain and Italy.5
On top of this was the chronic, seemingly insoluble problem of Greece. Despite two bail-outs, two rounds of debt restructuring and, as in Italy, the appointment of a technocrat to head the government, Greece needed still more billions to avoid default. All attempts at reform had come to a halt during the Greek election campaign. The second ballot on June 17th allowed Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, to cobble together a broad coalition with his arch-rival, Pasok. Yet Samaras was poorly regarded by European leaders. In opposition his refusal to support the first bail-out was deemed to have crippled Papandreou. Later, when he backed the unity government of Lucas Papademos, Samaras was evasive about the terms of the second rescue. And by forcing early elections in the midst of a wrenching adjustment, he was blamed for opening the door to extremists.
For better or worse, Samaras was now the last hope for Greece. Barroso flew to Athens to warn him to stop talking about renegotiating Greece’s bail-out conditions. In private and in public, he told him: “Deliver, deliver, deliver.” To the outrage of many in Brussels, Merkel’s government continued to entertain the idea of pushing Greece out, even though its citizens had voted for pro-European parties. Philipp Rösler, leader of Germany’s liberal Free Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, declared on July 22nd: “A withdrawal of Greece has long since lost its terror.” By then Spanish ten-year bond yields had passed the psychological threshold of 7%, and Italian ones were not far behind. Terror had returned to the euro zone.
Whatever it takes
To some, Cannes and its aftermath in late 2011 was the cruelest moment of the entire crisis. To many others, the moment of greatest despair came in the summer of 2012. Draghi, spending a few days in London at the end of July, was worried about financial data: economic fundamentals had not changed and there was ample liquidity. Yet money was fleeing north, regulators were telling banks to keep their money within national borders, cross-border bank lending had all but stopped, and sovereign spreads were rising along with credit-default swaps. To the ECB this was evidence of the euro zone moving towards the “bad equilibrium” evoked by Paul De Grauwe, then a professor of economics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He had argued in 2011 that, unless the ECB acted as a lender of last resort, countries in the euro zone were effectively borrowing in a foreign currency and could easily be pushed into default by panicked markets. Draghi thought that fear of the euro’s break-up was becoming a self-fulfilling process. Only the ECB could put an end to the “redenomination risk”.
On July 26th, the eve of the summer’s other big sporting festival, the London Olympics, Draghi addressed a group of investors gathered in the splendour of Lancaster House in London. The single currency, he recalled,6 had once been described as a bumblebee which, as scientific lore had it, should not be able to fly. The euro area was “much, much stronger than people acknowledge today”; outsiders were underestimating recent reforms and the political will to make the euro irreversible. Then came a seemingly unscripted sentence that made his audience sit up. “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro,” said Draghi, pausing for a moment. “And believe me, it will be enough.” Dealing with markets’ fear of “convertibility risk”, declared Draghi, was within the remit of the ECB.
Markets had usually ignored leaders’ promises to do whatever it took to save the currency. But Draghi’s words had an immediate effect, even though nobody was quite sure what would follow – not even all members of the ECB’s executive board. There could not simply be a return to Trichet’s Securities Market Programme (SMP), by now regarded as an expensive mistake that had lumbered the ECB with more than €200 billion-worth of vulnerable bonds, to little effect. Draghi never forgot how Berlusconi had reneged on his promises of reform the previous year. The ECB concluded that the SMP had suffered from multiple flaws. It had no means of compelling countries to reform. It was limited in scope, so never amounted to the “big bazooka” needed to ward off speculators. Its resources were scattered across a range of maturities. And it left the ECB exposed politically. So now Draghi reinvented the formula. His new policy of outright monetary transactions (OMT), outlined on August 4th and then set out in detail on September 6th, would require countries seeking ECB intervention to request help from the rescue fund and sign up to a macroeconomic adjustment programme. The fund would have to intervene in the primary bond market. Only then would the ECB decide whether to intervene in the secondary market, where it would concentrate on buying short dated bonds with a maturity of less than three years. Crucially, there would be no pre-set limit to the quantities it could buy. In other words, it would be left to governments to decide whether a country was solvent, and overtly to impose reforms, rather than leaving the ECB to send out secret letters. And the ECB would concentrate its potentially huge firepower on a narrow front of the bond market.
Even so, OMT was resisted by the Bundesbank’s president, Jens Weidmann, who voted against the policy, saying it was akin to printing money. But unlike his predecessor, Axel Weber, he did not resign. Tellingly, his colleagues from Finland and the Netherlands – the traditional emmerdeurs – voted in favour. And the German government made clear its support for Draghi. Weidmann sounded increasingly like a prophet in the wilderness, declaring that saving the euro was a job for elected leaders, not central bankers. At one point he couched his criticism in literary terms, by quoting Goethe’s Faust: in the play the Holy Roman Emperor complains of being short of gold; Mephistopheles persuades him to sign a document which is then reproduced and distributed as paper money; but after the initial economic upswing comes inevitable inflation and collapse.7 The lesson, said Weidmann, was that central banks must avoid the temptation of solving short-term problems by creating money lest they create long-term damage. To which the ECB’s insiders retorted: the Bundesbank always has a solution for the long term, never for the short term.
The impact of OMT exceeded all expectations. From the end of July onwards, bond yields of the most troubled states came down almost continuously. By the end of 2012 Italian and Spanish bond yields had fallen to about 5% each (the spread over German bonds was still 200 basis points). More good news came in September, when Germany’s constitutional court gave the go-ahead for the ratification of the ESM, the permanent rescue fund, subject to minor caveats. The fund came into existence in early October. Based on paid-in capital rather than guarantees, the ESM was a more robust instrument than the EFSF it was replacing (the two will overlap for some years).
Draghi would later tell senior euro-zone policymakers that the commitment to start a banking union had created the conditions for OMT. As another ECB insider put it: We were willing to build a bridge, but it could not be a bridge to nowhere. The leaders had to build a road on the other side.
At the time of writing, markets had not called Draghi’s bluff. OMT, according to one ECB insider, was “by far the most significant intervention of monetary history.” It had not cost a cent, and did not stoke inflation. Even Weidmann would admit, in private, that it had worked better than he would have expected.
Even with the ECB’s intervention, the future of the euro zone could not be settled until the question of Greece was resolved. What to do? Merkel had never been among those most militantly pushing for the expulsion of Greece; she had even described herself in private conversations as the only person in Germany still willing to keep the Greeks in. As she told the Bundestag in February 2012, “I should and have to take risks, but I cannot embark on adventures.” She had allowed her ministers to use the threat of expulsion to exert pressure on Greece to abide by its programme and, latterly, to convince voters to support pro-European parties.
Throughout the crisis, Merkel had received contradictory advice, both at home and abroad. Some at the IMF thought Greece would be better off returning to the drachma given the euro zone’s muddled policies. At the same time, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, warned Merkel that Grexit might cause so much political instability as to provoke another military intervention. But during August 2012 Merkel made a firm decision: Greece would stay in the euro, even if that took more money. Some think the moment of clarity came during her walking holiday in the Italian Alps, or soon after her return to Berlin. Others suggest the final decision was taken during a trip to China at the end of the month, when she was grilled by Chinese leaders about the future of the euro zone. What made up her mind were her conversations with Weidmann and the ECB’s Jörg Asmussen. Neither could offer any assurance that the consequences of Grexit could be contained.
When the newly elected Samaras, recovering from eye surgery, visited Berlin on August 24th, Merkel already sounded much more sympathetic to the plight of Greece. She told him privately she was ready to “help” if Greece wanted to leave the euro; but if it wanted to stay, she needed assurances that Samaras would deliver reform and fiscal discipline. The Greek prime minister said Grexit was inconceivable, and he would resign immediately if it were ever on the cards.
The strongest signal that Greece would stay came on October 9th, when Merkel made her first trip to Greece, expressed her desire that the country should stay in and offered “practical” assistance with structural reforms, such as German experts to help overhaul tax administration and modernise local government. Her attempt to empathise with the Greeks was not universally welcomed. Protesters outside parliament waved banners declaring “Angela you are not welcome”. Municipal workers in full Nazi uniform, one of them with a Hitler moustache, drove a jeep flying swastika flags through the streets as a reminder of the German occupation in the Second World War. Riot police resorted to tear gas and stun grenades to keep protesters from the parliament building.
Although Germany no longer wanted to throw Greece out, it still did not want to lend it more billions to keep it in. A third programme would not go down well in the Bundestag. So Greece had to find large savings (worth more than 7% of GDP) in 2013 and 2014 to make up for the time lost earlier in the year and to deal with the consequences of a deeper-than-expected recession. It would be given two more years to reach its target of a primary budget surplus of 4.5% of GDP in 2016 instead of 2014. That would require more loans in future, and more loans would raise the debt. For now the most contentious issue was the tug-of-war between the IMF and the euro zone over the size of Greece’s debt. Greece’s economic outlook was so poor that it would probably miss by a long shot the target of bringing debt down to 120% of GDP by 2020. The figure was now expected to be 144% of GDP. The IMF sought outright forgiveness of debt, now mostly held by the official lenders (hence the term official sector involvement, or OSI). It said a write-off would be the strongest possible signal of the euro zone’s intent to keep Greece in, and so would boost investor confidence. Yet OSI was unacceptable ahead of Germany’s general election in September 2013; it would have vindicated critics who said money lent to Greece would never be repaid.
After much wrangling, a deal in November again cut Greece’s interest rate, deferred payment for ten years and doubled maturities to 30 years. It included a commitment to cut Greece’s debt to 124% of GDP in 2020 and to “substantially below” 110% of GDP two years later, with the promise to take more action if necessary once Greece reached a primary budget surplus. Nevertheless, an important line had been crossed. Without saying so too loudly, the euro zone was ready to pay to keep Greece in the currency. Spain and Italy were already lending to Greece at a lower rate than they could borrow.
The largest cloud over the unaccustomed optimism in the autumn of 2012 was Germany’s backtracking on banking union. The Commission rushed out its legislative proposals for a single bank supervisor in September but Germany made sure that key parts of the document, such as a timetable for the creation of a common deposit-insurance system, were excised. There was only a vague commitment to creating a bank-resolution authority for the euro zone to complement the supervisor.
The immediate focus would be on harmonising national banking rules across the EU as a whole, including “bail-in” procedures to impose losses on shareholders, bondholders and large depositors in order to spare the taxpayer.
Even the supervisor was not entirely to Germany’s liking. The Commission wanted the ECB-based supervisor to oversee all 6,000-plus banks in the euro zone. Germany insisted it should focus only on the bigger “systemic” banks, leaving supervision of smaller banks, including its own often-troubled Sparkassen and Landesbanken, in national hands – even though Spain’s experience showed that trouble in small lenders could become systemic. Germany also slowed down the timetable for the supervisor to start work (originally January 1st 2013) on the grounds that such an important task should not be rushed. Thereafter, direct bank recapitalisation should only take place once the system had shown itself to be “effective”.
Worse was to come. On September 25th Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, and his Dutch and Finnish colleagues sought to limit the commitment to direct recapitalisation: it should apply only to new problems, not “legacy assets”, and should only be a “last resort”, after using private capital and then national funds. Spain gave up on the idea of direct recapitalisation of its banks. In December it borrowed €41 billion of the €100 billion allocated by the euro zone, which would increase its debt ratio by about 4% of GDP. Ireland’s hope that its bank debt would be taken over retroactively was similarly dashed.
At the end of 2012 finance ministers reached a compromise on the scope of the new supervisor: it would directly oversee the biggest “systemic” banks in the euro zone (about 130), while day-to-day control of smaller lenders would be left to national regulators, subject to central rules and the right of the euro-zone supervisor to assume oversight of any bank if deemed necessary. Beyond banking union, the other pillars of Van Rompuy’s “genuine” economic and monetary union were also crumbling. In October he had dropped the idea of a timetable for Eurobonds. At a summit in December he tried to push the concept of “fiscal capacity”, a French-sponsored idea to create a central budget to act as a counter-cyclical economic tool to stabilise countries undergoing a downturn, maybe by providing benefits for short-term unemployment. But this was killed too.
What remained of Van Rompuy’s roadmap was only a timetable for the next step on banking union – the creation of a bank-resolution mechanism – along with the wisp of a German idea to have “contracts” between governments and the Commission to promote structural reforms. In a nod to France, these could include some extra money. This was less ambitious than early German ideas to establish some kind of system of transfers to help the most troubled countries. It was certainly not the French idea of an automatic stabiliser. The Commission published its own “blueprint” for reform in November to try to keep some of these ideas alive, but EU leaders had lost interest in making great federalist leaps, if they ever harboured the notion in the first place. Ahead of the German election due in September 2013, Merkel was wary of taking on new liabilities. She had already lost her “chancellor’s majority” in votes to approve bail-out programmes, meaning that she now had to rely on votes from the opposition Social Democrats.
In some ways Draghi’s threat of unlimited intervention worked too well. As pressure from markets eased, so did the pressure to fix the euro zone. The danger of moral hazard did not apply just to debtors; it applied to creditor countries too. Leaders may have pledged to do “whatever it takes”, but more often it was a matter of doing “as little as we can get away with”.
Ugliness on Aphrodite’s island
The new doctrines of banking union would be tested sooner than expected, in the case of Cyprus. The Commission’s proposed rules on “bail-in” were pencilled in to apply from 2018. Germany wanted them in 2015. But in Cyprus bail-in would be applied immediately, and in the most chaotic manner possible.
The easternmost country in the European Union, closer to Syria than to Belgium, France or Germany, Cyprus has always been an awkward member. It entered the EU in 2004 as a divided island, voters in the Greek-Cypriot republic having rejected a UN plan to reunite with the Turkish-Cypriot north (where the plan was supported) on the eve of its accession to the EU. The Greek-Cypriot government used and abused EU institutions to wage its feud with its northern rival and Turkey, and to lend support to Russia. With an oversized financial sector (more than eight times GDP), catering mostly for Russian expatriates, Cyprus was vulnerable when the financial crisis struck in 2008. It was shut out of markets in May 2011 and then suffered a double blow: its banks took large losses as a result of their exposure to Greece (including losses equivalent to 25% of GDP as a result of the haircut on Greek bonds); and the main power station, generating about half of Cyprus’s electricity, was destroyed by the explosion of a cache of weapons stored carelessly nearby.
Cyprus’s pre-crisis boom was clearly unsustainable. A long-running current-account deficit gaped ever wider. Companies and households were hugely in debt. And government debt, though comparatively low, was rising because of overgenerous civil-service pay and benefits (including index-linked pay rises twice a year). With a short-term loan from Russia running out, and a ratings downgrade that meant Cypriot debt was no longer eligible as collateral at the ECB, Cyprus belatedly turned to the EU for help in June 2012, just as it took over the rotating EU presidency. Negotiations progressed slowly. Ahead of the presidential election in January 2013, the communist incumbent, Demetris Christofias, said he would not stand again. But he refused to entertain the fiscal cuts the troika would demand; and he was firmly opposed to any privatisation. The euro zone was in no rush: it had enough on its plate with Greece and Spain, and nobody was keen to bail out banks stuffed with Russian money, some of which might have been the fruit of corrupt dealings. Better to wait until after the election, many felt.
Merkel had been among leaders of the conservative European People’s Party who went to Cyprus to support Nicos Anastasiades, leader of the centre-right DISY party, a month before he comfortably won the presidential election in February 2013. But his political “family” was less than generous when it came to negotiating a bailout. The IMF, now less malleable as a result of the fiasco in Greece, said lending Cyprus the €17 billion needed to recapitalise its banks and finance public spending would make its debt unsustainable. Greek-style haircuts on government bonds were unappealing, because much of the debt was held by Cypriot banks. Moreover, the euro zone had vowed that the Greek PSI would be an exception. The expected bounty of natural gas off Cyprus’s coast was too uncertain, and the prospect of commercial exploitation too tangled in regional geopolitics. So a large share of the money would have to come from the two big banks: Bank of Cyprus and Cyprus Popular Bank, known as Laiki.
On March 16th Anastasiades stayed in Brussels at the end of an EU summit to be on hand for bailout negotiations. The talks turned ugly when he rejected any large-scale hit on depositors, the ECB threatened to cut off liquidity to the large Cypriot banks, and Anastasiades threatened to leave the euro. A compromise was found, but it was a bad one. All depositors would be subject to a one-off “levy”: 9.9% on large deposits and 6.75% on those below the €100,000 deposit-guarantee limit. Somehow the euro zone, working late at night and run by a novice (Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, had recently become chairman of the Eurogroup), agreed to raid the savings of grandmothers rather than impose a bigger haircut on Russian oligarchs. The mess came down to a fetish about round numbers. Germany said the euro zone would lend no more than €10 billion; the IMF insisted the island’s debt should be kept below 100% of GDP by 2020 (a more exacting standard than for Greece, on the grounds that it was a small economy); and Anastasiades was adamant that any tax on big depositors should be below 10%.
As banks were shut in Cyprus to avoid an outrush of money, there followed a week of brinkmanship, including a 36–0 vote in the Cypriot parliament to reject the terms, street protests, a failed attempt by Cyprus to throw itself at Russia’s feet and a public ultimatum by the ECB. Van Rompuy stepped in to try to fix the mess. On March 24th Anastasiades was flown back to Brussels on a Belgian air force plane. He resisted the IMF’s attempt to wind up both Bank of Cyprus and Laiki. That would crush the island’s economy, he said. In the end he agreed to sacrifice Laiki to save a rump of Bank of Cyprus. Laiki’s bad assets and all its uninsured deposits were put into a “bad bank”. Its viable assets and insured deposits were put into a “good bank” and transferred to Bank of Cyprus (along with, questionably, Laiki’s obligation to repay the ECB’s liquidity loans). Bank of Cyprus would be restructured by wiping out shareholders. Junior and senior bondholders were bailed in and given equity. Uninsured depositors were subjected to haircuts of 47.5%, also in exchange for equity.
The remaining deposits were for the most part put into term deposit accounts for up to two years. The new deal was better than the old one, in that it protected insured depositors and concentrated the pain on the two largest banks, which had been the cause of the problem. It restored a sensible hierarchy of creditors in bank resolution, whereas under the previous agreement, senior bondholders would have been spared but small depositors hit. But it came at a cost. The Cypriot economy was pushed into a deep slump, albeit perhaps not as catastrophic as some feared. The euro zone for the first time introduced capital controls, meaning that a euro in Cyprus no longer carried the same value as a euro elsewhere. The reputation of the euro zone in managing the crisis was further tarnished. And the judgment of the ECB, now charged with supervising the biggest banks, was also questioned. It had provided liquidity to Laiki, even though it was bust, and then insisted on being repaid fully when the bank was wound up. Moreover, it had been party to the original deal that undermined the EU-wide €100,000 guarantee to depositors.
Had Cyprus walked out of the euro, as some expected, European officials were ready with a proposals for a blanket guarantee on all deposits in the euro zone and the activation of OMT. Such ideas were dismissed by the Germans. The proposition was never tested, as Anastasiades caved in. Tellingly, sovereign- and corporate-bond markets were sanguine throughout the week-long standoff. Draghi’s firewall held firm. Plainly, Cyprexit in 2013 did not hold the same terror as Grexit had in 2011 or 2012.
Good news, at last
Little seemed to scare the euro zone any more. The possibility of a bailout for Slovenia, which was grappling with the collapse of its opaque banking system, part of a web of political patronage, was treated as a tidying-up exercise. Through 2013 bond yields in peripheral countries declined gradually but steadily, perturbed only on occasion. Spreads over German bonds, which had exceeded 600 basis points for Spain and 500 for Italy in July 2012, fell steadily to below 200 basis points for both by February 2014. Their bond yields fell to pre-crisis levels. Even Greece, whose spread peaked at 2,900 basis points in June 2012, was down to about 650. And, haltingly at first, economic growth returned to the euro zone. No country had left the euro, and several still wanted to join. Latvia, the poster-child for hard, front-loaded austerity with a fixed currency (its currency was pegged to the euro) joined on January 1st 2014, following Estonia, which entered in 2011. Lithuania wants to be next Current-account deficits in the periphery narrowed, not just because imports collapsed but also because exports were rising. With the easing of the financial crisis, the pace of austerity was sensibly relaxed. In May 2013 France, Spain and Slovenia were given an extra two years to meet their deficit target of 3% of GDP. The Netherlands and Portugal got an extra year. Italy came out of its excessive deficit procedure in June. That said, tougher fiscal rules known as the “two-pack” came into force in the autumn of 2013, obliging countries to submit their draft budgets for 2014 to the Commission for comment before being sent to national parliaments. Increasingly, the Commission focused its yearly policy recommendations on promoting structural reforms, though even that was resented by France, with Hollande telling Brussels not to “dictate” specific reforms. To the irritation of Merkel’s government, the Commission plucked up the courage in November to launch an in-depth study of Germany’s large and persistent current-account surplus.
Both Ireland and Spain opted for a “clean” end to their bailout programmes at the end of 2013. The move may yet prove to be hubristic. IMF programmes usually end with a line of credit to facilitate a full return to market financing. Ireland and Spain may not have had much choice in the matter. Merkel was not keen to ask the Bundestag for more money. It suited her to have the strongest possible demonstration of the success of the policies she had enacted (and often changed). And it suited her Irish and Spanish counterparts to boast that they were free of the dreaded troika. But their emancipation may result in prolonged servitude for Portugal. Despite its compliance with bail-out conditions, Portugal suffered a wobble in the spring of 2013 when its constitutional court blocked some deficit-cutting measures. Its deficit is lower than Spain’s but its debt is larger and its growth weaker. If a stigma is attached to a precautionary line of credit, Portugal might yet be pushed into a second bail-out.
The wooden union
After a long pause caused by the German election in September 2013, which saw Merkel returned to power at the head of a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, the euro zone resumed work on banking union in the autumn of 2013. At its heart, banking union requires trust. Germany must feel able to share liabilities for everybody’s banks. And all countries must agree to stop coddling their banks so that more pan-European lenders can emerge.
Legal work on the single supervisor was finalised in November. It was due to be fully operational a year later, with Danièle Nouy, secretary-general of France’s bank and insurance supervisor, as its first boss. The next stage, potentially involving public money, was more difficult: the creation of a single resolution mechanism to wind up or restructure bust banks. Germany had stubbornly opposed a central authority with access to pooled funds (levied from the banks), pushing instead for a network that would leave German money in German hands. Wolfgang Schäuble, reappointed as German finance minister after the election, had said in May that the euro zone should start with a “timber framed” banking union; a steel one would require changing the treaties.8 But with the approach of an end-of-year deadline, Germany began to shift.
First, common bail-in rules that would apply to all EU countries – whether in or out of the euro zone – were approved in December. These would ensure there could not be another Cyprus-style fiasco. Shareholders and bondholders would have to take the first losses – up to 8% of the bank’s total assets – before any resolution funds could committed. Thereafter there would be a clear hierarchy of creditors, so that senior bondholders would take the hit before depositors, and deposits below €100,000 would be protected at all times.
Then Schäuble made an important concession. The joint euro-zone resolution fund would start with national “compartments”, but over a ten-year period these would be progressively pooled until there was a single European fund of about €55 billion ($60 billion). In other words, he agreed to mutualise the money of German banks, if not yet that of German taxpayers. And Germany’s answer to the question of trust was to give the new supervisor time to root out the problems. The principle could one day be applied to other reforms: how about the phased introduction of Eurobonds? For now, Schäuble’s legal nitpicking produced a complex legal structure (mixing EU treaty provisions for the single market with an inter-governmental treaty). The decision-making process to wind up a bank would be almost comically convoluted, raising worries about whether a failing bank could really be dealt with over a weekend.
After some brinkmanship, the European Parliament and Council agreed a compromise on March 20th 2014, concluding banking union in just two years. MEPs objected to inter-governmentalism but relented because the alternative was to have no resolution mechanism at all. In return they obtained some streamlining of decision-making. With backing from the ECB, they shortened the period for the pooling of funds (from ten to eight years) and permitted the fund to borrow money on the markets. All knew that if the issue were not settled before the May 2014 European elections, it risked being delayed indefinitely.
Despite heady talk of “a revolution”, banking union remained incomplete. There was still no single deposit-guarantee scheme. The promise of direct recapitalisation was remote: first losses had to be borne by shareholders and creditors; the burden would then be taken up by governments and only in extremis by the euro-zone rescue fund. The most glaring flaw was the lack of a common backstop, left to be decided at a future date. In the transition, national treasuries would step in if the resolution fund ran out of money; only if the burden threatened to ruin a country could it turn to the ESM. The obvious solution, to allow the ESM to extend a line of credit to the resolution fund, as the US Treasury does to the FDIC, was rejected by Germany. Saving taxpayers’ money is a laudable aim. But banking union cannot be credible without some assurance that taxpayers collectively stand behind it if a big crisis strikes.
Banking union did not live up to the promise to help Spain or Ireland in the current crisis. Nor will it be much use should the new supervisor find large holes in the banks when it publishes the results of a thorough examination of bank balance sheets at the end of 2014. At best, and only if done properly, banking union could help prevent and lower the cost of a future crisis. For the foreseeable future banking union, like the currency union itself, will remain a timber-framed construction.
Beware of Europhoria
After the long crisis, markets seemed in the grip of “Europhoria” by early 2014, particularly as their worries shifted to emerging economies. The elation was probably overdone. The euro zone was hardly in good health.
The euro zone stopped shrinking in the first half of 2013 but was forecast to grow only slowly in 2014, when just Cyprus and Slovenia were still expected to be in recession. A weak recovery left the euro zone vulnerable to another slump. Unemployment in the periphery remained at worryingly high levels. Financial markets had been fragmented by the crisis, with firms in the periphery of the euro zone paying higher rates of interest for their loans – that is, when credit could be obtained at all – than equivalent companies in “core” economies. Comparable business on either side of, say, the border between Italy and Austria could pay markedly different interest rates on bank loans.
Beyond this, the danger of Japan-style deflation began to worry policymakers by early 2014, as the inflation rate for the euro zone as a whole slowed to 0.7% in February, well below the ECB’s already conservative target of holding inflation in the medium term at close to but below 2%. Falling prices – already a reality in Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and Slovakia – hamper recovery, prompt consumers to postpone purchases in expectation of lower prices and increase the burden of debt on national economies. As Christine Lagarde, the IMF boss, put it in January 2014: “If inflation is the genie, then deflation is the ogre that must be fought decisively.”
Two issues, in particular, highlighted the fragility of the euro zone’s condition. First was the oldest and most intractable problem: Greece. Astonishingly, poor blighted Greece made it to a primary budget surplus (before interest) at the end of 2013, for once exceeding expectations, thanks in part to a bumper tourist season. This was despite losing a quarter of its economic output since the start of the crisis, and with 27% of its workforce unemployed. In Germany, Samaras was being hailed as one of the saviours of the euro. This should have brought closer the promised day when the euro zone would ease its burden of debt, forecast to reach 176% of GDP at the end of 2013.
But at the beginning of 2014, just as Greece took over the rotating presidency of the EU, things started to sour again. Germany said it would not talk of dealing with Greece’s debt until the second half of the year, that is, until after the European election. The delay might help the German government stem the rise of the new anti-euro Alternative for Germany party, but would make it harder for Samaras to resist the more dangerous charge of the radical leftist party, Syriza, which was leading in opinion polls. Moreover, the negotiations with the troika, in particular the IMF, got badly stuck.
On the face of it, the argument with the troika was about whether Greece should continue the long years of fiscal consolidation. Greece had a short-term problem, with a small gap in its financing requirements in the second half of 2014, and a longer-term problem over how to reach a primary budget surplus of 4.5% of GDP by 2016, as foreseen in its troika programme.
Samaras, having survived thus far with an ever-shrinking parliamentary majority, announced he could no longer take any across-the-board austerity measures. Henceforth, his government said, the budding recovery should not be stifled; Greece would simply grow its way to the promised surplus. For veterans of the IMF, still defensive about having badly misjudged the first Greek bail-out, optimistic growth forecasts did not amount to a credible policy.
Beneath the question of how much more belt-tightening Greece would require lay deeper problems. One was whether Greece’s debt relief, if and when it was agreed, should be in the form of a write-off in the nominal value of the debt, or whether softening the terms of its already soft loans by extending maturities and reducing interest would be good enough. The IMF thought a write-off would boost confidence among investors; the creditor countries said that was politically unacceptable. So “extend and pretend” seemed likely to win.
A more worrying issue was that Greece, even though it had largely complied with the demands of fiscal consolidation, was far behind in its promises to enact structural reforms and privatise state assets. Some of these had an impact on fiscal matters. But the more important ones had to do with liberalising the country’s sclerotic economy to release its growth potential.
Greece has sharply cut its unit-labour costs, but mostly by reducing wages rather than by raising productivity. And despite the fall in labour costs, Greek exports were falling once the murky trade in fuel and volatile tourism revenues were stripped out of the data. This was alarming. In Spain, Portugal and Ireland lower labour costs boosted exports. Some Greeks blamed a lack of credit. Others noted that the country’s main export market, the EU, had been in recession. But the real problem was an economy that produced few tradable goods. Greece had shot up the World Bank’s ranks for the ease of starting firms; but in the wider measure of ease of doing business, it ranked 72nd in the world, behind Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Kazakhstan. All this was evidence of a country still in need of far-reaching structural reform if it was to survive with a hard currency, at a time when its political system was running out of will for further change. European countries were pushing the IMF to give Greece a break, at least ahead of the European elections. But this was a particularly odd request, given the unwillingness of creditor countries to help Samaras by giving him early debt relief.
The other cloud over the euro zone was the future of Draghi’s “whatever it takes” promise to intervene in bond markets through his policy of OMT. The long-delayed judgment by Germany’s constitutional court was issued on February 14th, and it turned out to be a scathing denunciation of OMT. The court said it saw “important reasons to assume that it exceeds the European Central Bank’s monetary policy mandate and thus infringes the powers of the member states and that it violates the prohibition of monetary financing of the budget”. The court refrained from telling German institutions to stop implementing the policy, but reserved the right to do so after referring the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This bought OMT at least another year, and the ECJ may well support the ECB’s contention that the policy falls within its remit. Nevertheless, the Karlsruhe court has introduced a note of doubt that may prove dangerous should the debt crisis ever reignite.