Franco-German show of unity ahead of eurozone summit
After weeks of controversy on how to bail out Greece, Paris and Berlin sought to paper over their differences in a joint letter, tabling common proposals on reforming the single currency ahead of an extraordinary eurozone summit to take place in Brussels today (7 May).
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented a common front yesterday (6 May) on a number of initiatives to tighten control of eurozone countries' finances and stabilise financial markets.
In a joint letter, they recommend stricter monitoring of eurozone member states' debt, a further clampdown on credit rating agencies, and the establishment of a financial sector bailout fund paid for by banks.
Merkel also seems ready to abandon her idea of ejecting undisciplined eurozone members from the single currency, apparently yielding to demands from Paris.
The joint statement comes as eurozone leaders prepare to meet in Brussels to reform the rules of the common currency and prevent the Greek debt crisis from spreading to other eurozone countries.
The letter reiterates a tougher approach against public debts. The two leaders propose to extend surveillance "to structural issues and competitiveness," not only excessive deficits as is the case today.
They also suggest "strengthening the effectiveness of EU recommendations on economic policy". However, not all eurozone member states are likely to support the plan (EurActiv 06/05/10).
Crackdown on rating agencies
"We should take into consideration the possible role of credit rating agencies in amplifying crises and their impact on financial stability," the letter underlines.
Credit rating agencies stand accused of worsening the Greek crisis by fuelling speculation in the last few weeks. The downgrade by Standard & Poor's of the Greek sovereign debt rating sent the country into a tailspin before details of the long-awaited European rescue plan were made public.
This move "should make us think about the role of credit rating agencies in the propagation of a crisis," the letter reads.
Despite the tough EU line, Moody's yesterday (6 May) highlighted a risk of contagion in the Greek debt crisis, which it warned could spread to five other EU states: Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and the UK.
In their letter, Sarkozy and Merkel give their backing to existing EU efforts to regulate rating agencies but they also suggest reconsidering "the rating methods of sovereign debt". Trade unions want a complete ban on sovereign ratings.
Bank-funded bailout fund
Merkel also seems to back French proposals to set up a private fund to rescue banks in case of future default. "Member states should not be forced to bail out banks," reads the letter, adding: "We will work on a system of fair contributions from the financial sector."
Michel Barnier, the French EU commissioner in charge of financial services, had suggested establishing such a fund in March (EurActiv 22/03/10).
The letter expresses a joint commitment "to preserve the unity of the euro zone," which the French read as a conciliatory message from Merkel after her suggestion to expel undisciplined eurozone members (EurActiv 18/03/10).
Germany is also strongly campaigning to cut regional aid for states which regularly breach the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. But France is reluctant to take such a tough line on the issue as it has not always been an irreproachable member of the bloc itself. It is also a major beneficiary of EU funds.
Moreover, Merkel has expressed support for more radical reforms like creating a European Monetary Fund or applying sanctions on eurozone member countries that repeatedly break the bloc's economic guidelines, suggesting for example that their voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers could be suspended.
However, that would require changing the EU treaties, and France prefers more straightforward reforms like amending the Stability and Growth Pact.
The Franco-German axis has helped shape EU policies in recent decades. Observers still refer to the Franco-German relationship as "the engine of Europe".
Franco-German relations reached a high watermark during the 1980s. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand marked history by pushing ahead with the Maastricht Treaty and the establishment of the European Union. In the 1990s, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder continued that strategic alliance.
By contrast, the Sarkozy-Merkel duo have rarely shown such harmony and both have made headlines for their divergences. The latest example was the interim agreement on the Greek bailout, reportedly reached between Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi against the will of Angela Merkel (EurActiv 19/04/10).
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said ahead of the eurozone summit: "The Commission will do whatever necessary to ensure that financial markets are not a playground for speculation."
"Free markets constitute the basis for the functioning of successful economies. But free markets need rules and compliance, and rules and compliance need to be tightened if irresponsible behaviour puts at risk what cannot and should not be at risk," he added during a plenary session of the European Parliament.
Olli Rehn, the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, unveiled some of the proposals he will make on 12 May to strengthen the economic governance of the euro area. "Firstly, we need to reinforce the Stability and Growth Pact, both its preventive and corrective arms. We need a more systematic and rigorous preventive budgetary surveillance, so that cases like the Greek case will never happen again."
"Secondly, we must go beyond budgetary surveillance. We need to address macro-economic imbalances and divergences in competitiveness and, therefore, we need to reinforce both export competitiveness, which is urgently needed in many countries, and domestic demand where needed and possible."
"The third building block will be a crisis-resolution mechanism. The financial mechanism for Greece serves the immediate need for the current purposes. However, it is clear and necessary that we need to set up a permanent crisis resolution mechanism with strong in-built conditionalities and also disincentives for its use."
"The time has come for Europeans to learn from the crisis and to call for major reforms in European governance," said Joseph Daul MEP, chairman of the centre-right EPP Group in the European Parliament, addressing the European Council and the European Commission this week.
ETUC, the European trade union confederation, urged European policymakers "to stop the speculators from destroying our social model and to break with this type of barbaric structural adjustment".
ETUC proposed among other things to "suspend the use of rating agencies' sovereign debt ratings," reads a note.
- 7 May: Eurozone summit to rubber-stamp aid to Greece and review parliamentary approval processes in member states.
- 12 May: Commission to present long-term proposals for crisis management in euro zone.
- 17-18 June: EU summit in Brussels.