Germany and France said Friday (17 December) they would propose plans next year to harmonise tax and labour policies in the euro zone, saying the crisis has exposed the necessity to complete monetary union with an economic union.
Speaking at a press conference after the summit, French Presidency Nicolas Sarkozy said "Mrs Merkel and myself will make proposals" in the new year to "better harmonise economic policy" in the euro zone.
The political about-face could mark the start of stronger fiscal unity among the countries that use the euro currency.
It could also be a long, but important step toward tackling differences in competitiveness and could ultimately pave the way for the creation of eurobonds.
"The discussions showed yesterday that we need a more common approach in our economic policies and we will have to talk about this in the coming months, especially in the euro zone," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"it's not just important to have solid budgets and stable finances but it is also important that we have a common economic policy."
"Step by step. It will be a long process."
The Franco-German proposals will include plans to "put in place convergence programmes" for fiscal and social policies, said Sarkozy.
The objective, he said, is to "tackle differences in competitiveness" between the 16 countries that share the single currency, adding that "social and fiscal policy form part of these differences in competitiveness."
His comments, echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, show that many European leaders acknowledge that the creation of a new financial bailout fund isn’t enough, and that as long as national fiscal policies run the gamut, the EU’s monetary union remains vulnerable.
This week, EU leaders agreed to create a permanent mechanism by 2013 to help member states in dire financial straights. The mechanism is expected to be modelled after the current €750 billion temporary fund, but is not expected to include eurobonds.
And that drew criticism from several sides.
"The German, British, Swedish and Dutch Governments formed a roadblock to progress on the eurobonds issue," said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists. ''So blatantly putting national interest before European recovery is short-termist and lacking in leadership."
"It sends one message to the Markets: you can keep picking us off one by one".
But eurobonds were "not on the agenda," Zapatero said, because it was "not the right time for this debate." Instead, he said, "all member states expressed their will to work for fiscal consolidation."
But will member states really want to engage in harmonising tax and labour policies?
Speaking after the summit, Sarkozy admitted that "the thinking has to mature" on how to achieve greater economic convergence in the euro zone.
"There are sovereign countries, this requires persuasion," he said, suggesting the debate is likely to meet resistance from countries such as Ireland which currently apply very low corporate tax rates.
"Good luck," said Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies. "These are very general, high-sounding resolutions, and I’ve heard them many times in the past. They never lead to anything."
The most obvious challenge: the economic realities facing the 16 countries that use the euro are vastly different. The recession is over in Germany, where employment is back to pre-crisis levels and industrial output grew 3% in October alone. But Greece and Ireland, both recently saved by EU-bailouts, are still mired in recession.
And while Irish prime minister Brian Cowen agreed coordinating economic policies is a good idea, he said ''taxation is a national competence''.
Ireland’s super-low corporate tax rate of 12.5% has drawn fire from France and other countries because it gives Irish businesses a competitive advantage. And that is the kind of gap France and Germany want to close before agreeing to help finance a eurobond market.
"I want more convergence but this is a very widely spread issue because you need to move completely different systems of social or societal integration together," said Werner Hoyer, German European Minister.
"It is a challenge for decades and not just for a summit."
Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, a eurosceptic think-tank, said "the package agreed by EU leaders provides no fundamental solution to the eurozone’s structural weaknesses. Given Europe’s interconnected trading books, the eurozone’s problems will therefore remain Britain’s problems. What we need is a complete restructuring of the Single Currency, including changes to its membership."
The European Council on Foreign Relations, another British think-tank, is an advocate for eurobonds, an expanded EU euro-budget and an American-style Troubled Asset Relief Programme. "As European leaders publicly quarrel about the way forward, despite engineering converging budget cuts at home, they strengthen fears about a future break-up of the euro [...] Simply put, the euro crisis has become an existential threat to European foreign policy, affecting not just the eurozone 16 countries but the entier EU 27."
In his concluding remarks after the summit, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, said: "There are still lessons to be learned. Both the EU and member states need to act in a more coordinated way to increase our weight in strategic negotiations. We also need to improve synergies between our policies, including the external dimension of our internal policies. It is important to define the main objectives and secure the best trade-offs for the whole European Union."
"The changes agreed today are not enough to get Europe out of the crisis," said Rebecca Harms MEP, co-president of the Greens group in the European Parliament. "With the very survival of the Euro at stake, we need urgent measures to prevent the contagion from spiralling totally out of control. Against this background it is dumbfounding that chancellor Merkel continues to resist the logical call for Eurobonds to buttress the Eurozone, as well as increasing the crisis funds available."
At a summit in October, France and Germany proposed setting up a permanent system to handle crises in the euro zone, admitting it would mean changing the EU treaties.
On 1 December, the European Commission outlined details for a eurozone permanent strategy to help countries at risk of defaulting on their debts.
Details of the proposal were debated by European leaders at their EU summit on 16-17 December.
Separately, IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn criticised the EU's piecemeal approach to rescuing the euro currency from contagion as ministerial talks earlier this month (7 December) gave no succour to countries with worsening sovereign debt problems.
- 2011: France and Germany will introduce ''convergence programmes'' to help harmonise fiscal policies among member states using the euro currency.
EU official documents
- European Council:Conclusions of the December EU summit(17 Dec. 2010)
- EurActiv Slovakia:Sarkozy a Merkelová s?úbili spolo?ný plán pre fiškálnu úniu