EU summit: Enough to save the euro?

Insight
08 December 2011

by Simon Tilford

The UK’s decision to marginalise itself by vetoing a new EU-27 treaty has dominated the post-summit media coverage. And for good reason – it could prove a big step towards UK withdrawal from the EU. However, the bigger question is whether the agreement reached at the summit will do anything to address the fundamentals of the euro crisis.

Unfortunately, the news on this point is just as bad. This summit will go down as yet another missed opportunity. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the summit suggests that policy-makers have not yet taken on board the seriousness of the eurozone’s predicament. There was no agreement to close any of the institutional gaps in the eurozone, such as the lack of either a real fiscal union or a pan-eurozone backstop to the banking sector. There was no agreement to boost the firepower of the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF), while the move to beef up the IMF’s finances fall far short of what is needed. As a result, there is little to prevent a further deepening of the crisis.

What has been agreed falls far short of a ‘fiscal union’. There will be no joint debt issuance, no shared budget, and no mechanism to transfer monies between the participating countries. Essentially, the agreement hard-wires pro-cyclical fiscal austerity into the institutional framework of the eurozone, with no quid quo pro in terms of a commitment to move gradually to debt mutualisation. It is little more than a revamped version of the EU’s existing Stability and Growth Pact. The market reaction has been less than euphoric – bond spreads have jumped sharply. Italian yields have risen back to close to 7 per cent.

This is unsurprising. Fiscal austerity alone will not solve the crisis. Indeed it has become part of the crisis. Such a strategy has already failed in Greece and Portugal and it threatens to make a bad situation in Spain and Italy even worse. What the eurozone needs is economic growth, and this agreement further worsens the outlook for that. The eurozone economy is facing a deep recession, and mounting signs of a credit crunch across much of its southern flank, as capital flight gains momentum. To adhere doggedly to a crisis strategy centred on the single pillar of fiscal austerity risks causing a further erosion of investor confidence.

But does the agreement at least give the Germans cover to back more substantive solutions to the crisis, such as debt mutualisation? So far, there is little indication of any thaw in the German opposition to debt mutualisation (‘eurobonds’), but a tough fiscal regime could potentially make it easier for the German government to accept, in principle, the case for eurobonds. The problem is that the longer the crisis goes on, the riskier eurobonds become for Germany economically and hence politically: the bigger the crisis, the larger the impact debt mutualisation would have on Germany’s own borrowing costs, and the larger the obstacles the government would face in trying to sell eurobonds to voters.

And does the agreement provide sufficient cover for the ECB to step up its buying of struggling eurozone countries’ government bonds?

The ECB has stepped up support for the eurozone’s battered banking sector. For example, the ECB has increased liquidity support for the banks: among other measures, banks will be able to borrow from the ECB on longer maturities. But there is no indication that the ECB will dramatically increase its bond buying or set targets for member-states’ borrowing costs. There was apparently strong opposition on the ECB’s governing council to the provision of additional support to the banking sector. For the time being it seems unlikely that the governing council will sanction the scale of bond-buying needed to dispel fears of default. The bank certainly could not intervene indefinitely, anyway. ECB action would need to be accompanied by institutional reforms, in particular a move to mutualise debt. In the absence of that, large-scale bond buying would quickly erode the ECB’s credibility.

The eurozone appears to be little nearer to striking the ‘grand bargain’ needed to secure the future of the single currency. Germany continues to believe that investor confidence can be won back through the imposition of legal regulations. But stability cannot be achieved through regulation. At a time when the European economy faces an acute risk of depression, the eurozone still has no economic growth strategy. Eurozone governments also failed to agree to set aside more money for the EFSF and all the indications are that the ECB will remain cautious.

So the summit has failed to bring any short-term reassurance to investors and done nothing to close any of the eurozone’s institutional gaps. It has set the scene for a new and even more dangerous phase of the crisis. Politics might still come to rescue of the single currency, but the omens are not good.