EU officials will spend the August holiday drafting the blueprint to be unveiled by José Manuel Barroso on 12 September
Every day this summer, despite the holiday season, teams of high-powered eurocrats are beavering away on a blueprint aimed at staving off a much bigger banking crisis across Europe.
Not for them the usual poolside villas in Tuscany or the south of France. Instead they are racing against the clock to deliver the technical, complex, and highly political detail of how to establish a much more powerful and intrusive system of supervising European banks – a “banking union” that is seen as the first step in the long haul towards a federal Europe or political union as the systemic response to the euro crisis.
“It’s ambitious, very complicated with many different choices and options,” said Jean Pisani-Ferry, the economist who heads the Bruegel thinktank in Brussels. “Basically it’s an off-balance sheet fiscal union.”
Officials from three departments of the European Commission are to table a menu of options to their political bosses within 10 days, according to senior sources involved. The aim is to propose an effective, integrated, and ultimately centralised, regime for regulating the European banking sector – or at the very least that of the eurozone.
If established, the new system will change the way the EU works, immensely strengthening the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, raising fundamental questions about Britain’s place in the EU and that of Europe’s biggest financial centre, the City. It will also call Germany’s bluff on its longstanding fierce resistance to having others prying into the emails, ledgers, and balance-sheets of its banks.
“If you want to stick your finger in the Spanish pie, you’re going to have to accept that you can also put your finger into the German pie,” said a senior EU official.
After being briefed on the options at the end of the month, a quartet of European commissioners will take the political decision on what direction to take. The officials will then spend the August holiday drafting the blueprint to be unveiled by José Manuel Barroso (below right), the commission president, when he delivers his “state of the union” speech in Strasbourg on 12 September.
Already, the frictions are apparent behind the scenes, presaging six months of conflict between national capitals, Brussels, the ECB, and Britain over the scope, powers, and location of the new banking authority.
“There are already fierce turf wars over who should be the new supervisor,” said an EU ambassador.
Michel Barnier of France, the commissioner for the single market, told a meeting of the EC this month that all the key issues were open: “Such as the supervision to be exercised by the European Central Bank and by the national supervisory authorities, the way in which it would complement the European Banking Authority, the scope of this new supervision (all banks or only the main financial institutions), and whether the banking union would apply to the entire euro area or on the basis of an opt-in,” according to minutes of the meeting.
The contentious issues are how many of the EU’s 8,000 banks, or 6,000 eurozone banks, will have to submit to the new authority. Who will wield that authority? A new body or the ECB, whose independence as eurozone monetary policymaker is sacrosanct but whose putative role as banking enforcer would need to be rendered accountable to elected politicians? And will Britain, resolved absolutely not to join the banking union, be able to secure “safeguards” ensuring it cannot be outvoted by a eurozone “caucus” on EU single market issues and financial services – the UK’s biggest export to the single market?
It is clear that the eurocrats in Brussels will propose a maximalist vision, putting as many banks as possible into the mix and as many countries as possible – more than just the eurozone, preferred by Britain and the ECB.
“Banking union has profound implications and we know the UK will never accept,” said Pisani-Ferry. “Trying to do it at 27 (EU member states) is a distraction we can’t afford. We know it’s a non-starter. We don’t have the time.”
Commission officials confirm, however, that the proposal will embrace the entire EU even if they accept that won’t survive. There are strong reasons, though, for extending the supervision beyond the eurozone. In the newer non-euro member states of central Europe, for example, the financial sector is 90% dominated by eurozone banks – Austrian, Italian, or German. A similar dilemma is thrown up in reverse in the three EU Baltic states whose banking sector is essentially Swedish. Estonia is in the euro, but Sweden is not and says it does not want to join the banking union.
Several poorer non-euro countries may clamour to join the union on the grounds of safer haven. The idea is that eventually the supervisory system will include common resolution funds for winding up or rescuing weak banks as well as pooled deposit guarantee schemes for Europe’s savers. In the event of a bank run in, say, Poland, the government is bound to feel more comfortable being able to draw on European resources than trying to cope on its own.
“We need to do everything possible in the context of the 27, but at the same time the eurozone has the right to go towards a financial union,” said a second senior EU official.
If about 23 countries were to enter the new system, it would function as “1+6″, with the 17 countries of the eurozone operating as a bloc.
Berlin is leading the campaign to limit the remit of the new authority to “systemic” big cross-border banks in Europe. That would mean only about 25 institutions and only two of them German – Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank (which these days operates mainly as a global investment bank out of the City).
This is arousing strong opposition and suspicion of the motives of Germany, which has been the loudest public advocate of the new regime.
“This would make it more difficult to look into small banks, which is usually where the problems emerge,” says a third senior official in Brussels.
The collapse of Northern Rock in the UK, Dexia in Belgium, or Bankia in Spain would all have escaped the scrutiny of the new banking union if it was restricted to “systemic” banks.
The direct trigger for the financial union has been Spain’s banking crisis and the EU policy decision, at a summit last month, to try to break the invidious “loop” between weak sovereigns and failing banks when applying eurozone bailouts.
That produced a decision that the bailout money to Spain could go directly to recapitalise the needy banks without burdening state debt levels. Since the summit, however, there has been a cacophony of argument over this.
Germany insists the new system of rigorous European supervision of banks has to be operating before common eurozone funds can go to a country’s banks. Critics suspect Berlin is playing for time, to delay the creeping mutualisation of liability in what one of the senior officials describes as the developing “mechanism to run a continental economy”.
At present the EU has a weak supervisor in the form of the London-based European Banking Authority, which essentially liaises with and mediates between national regulators.
Berlin takes the view that it has been “a complete and utter failure”, especially over Spain. But Brussels officials say that one reason for its weakness is that Berlin has consistently sought to sabotage it and refused to supply information on German banks. BaFin, the German financial regulator, jealously guards its prerogatives and brooks no outside interference, raising the question of whether it will surrender its powers to a new eurozone regime which Berlin says it wants to be housed at the ECB in Frankfurt.
The aim, likely to prove over-ambitious, is to have the new regime up and running by the new year. British and European officials believe it will be an improvement on the way things are currently supervised. Yet they doubt if it would be fit to handle a full-blown banking crisis, and would instead be a fairweather regime that would struggle to cope with a storm.
“Look at Ireland, they saved the banks, but bankrupted the country,” says one. “Everyone forgot about bank runs, thought they were history. Now we understand the money’s not in the banks. This new system will be fine if we don’t need it. But if we do need it?”