The Europeans at the London summit

The Europeans at the London summit

Katinka Barysch
01 April 2009

by Katinka Barysch

Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, threatens to walk out of the London G20 summit unless France gets its way on tougher financial regulation. The toppled Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, who happens to hold the EU presidency, describes the US fiscal stimulus as “the road to hell”. Not one EU leader deems it necessary to support Gordon Brown publicly when he tries to drum up support for a more concerted international effort to revive the global economy. The Dutch and the Spaniards are turning the G20 itself into a misnomer by insisting on their own place at the table, and raising the number of the already over-represented Europeans (The fact that there will be six European governments represented, plus the Czech presidency, plus the European Commission, not counting the European heads of the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, attracts deserved ridicule from other countries).

So is the G20 just another opportunity for the Europeans to show how weak, divided and status-conscious they are?

In fact, the Europeans have not done as badly in the run-up to the summit as some media reports (and occasional outbursts by stressed prime ministers) suggest.

EU leaders managed to thrash out a reasonably coherent position at their spring summit on 20th -21st March. The meeting’s final communiqué has a special section on the agreed line for the London summit. The words in this section are vague but represent a workable compromise which could allow the Europeans to speak with one voice at the G20.

G20 finance ministers had already reached a kind of truce on the issue of more fiscal stimuli at their meeting on March 14th. Not surprisingly, EU leaders, at their spring summit a week later, also rejected calls for an immediate increase in budgetary spending. So why some commentators are still speculating whether the G20 may come up with a new, co-ordinated package is a bit of a mystery. There needs to be a firm pledge from all G20 countries to assess critically the fiscal efforts they have made so far, and then to revisit the issue of a co-ordinated stimulus at their next summit, probably later this year.

At the March 20th–21st summit, EU leaders called only for swift implementation of those packages already announced. This, and the fact that the communiqué also calls on the EU countries to prepare for “an orderly reversal of macro-economic stimuli” and to “ensure consistency with longer term objectives such as sustainable public finances” represents a victory for Berlin and other capitals worried about inflationary pressures and the stability of the euro.

The Europeans supported global efforts to make more money available for the poorer and more vulnerable countries around the world. They started at home, by doubling the size of the EU’s own emergency fund for Central and Eastern Europe to €50 billion. The Europeans also agreed to raise an additional €75 billion as their contribution to a significant increase in the IMF’s war chest, to at least $500 billion. Since Japan had already pledged $100 billion, the onus is now on the US and China to chip in.

China, of course, will be cautious about committing money to an unreformed IMF. Here the EU’s position is lame. The communiqué only calls for a “reform of the IMF so that it reflects more adequately relative economic weights in the world economy”. The Europeans should have made it clearer that they are prepared to decrease their own voting shares and representation on the IMF’s management board. But diplomats say that the strongest opposition to thorough IMF reforms currently comes from the US – reluctant to give up its de facto ability to veto IMF decisions – rather than Europe.

On financial market regulation, the EU’s position is quite far advanced, much more so than the American one. The EU summit communiqué list all the measures that the EU wants to take – on regulating credit agencies, hedge funds, credit default swaps and so forth – and attaches deadlines to each. There has been a great deal of convergence within Europe, chiefly between Germany, France and others that want to see tighter rules and supervision of financial markets, and the UK, which has abandoned its belief in ‘light touch’ regulation. There are a lot of similarities between the recommendations of the recent reports from Jacques de Larosiere, which the EU wants to use as a basis for its legislative programme, and Adair Turner, head of the UK’s Financial Services Authority. Both, for example, call for more co-ordination between the supervision of individual banks and the monitoring of the stability of the financial system as a whole. The emerging US position as presented by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 26th also calls for more centralised supervision of US financial services, as well as a reform of capital adequacy and accountancy rules (in line with EU demands). Geithner for the first time acknowledged that hedge funds and other hitherto lightly regulated but systemically important finance vehicles need at least some supervision.

Of course the devil is in the detail and the London summit cannot and will not agree on more than the broad principles of further regulation and supervision. The debate about a new supervisory system in the US is only just beginning. It will be long and politicised. The EU’s deadlines for new legislation run from May until the end of 2009. Since the European Parliament will be re-elected in June and the European Commission will step down in October (although it could be extended to the end of the year), comprehensive new rules are unlikely before 2010.

The EU has looked weak and divided in the run-up to the G20 summit. Its reluctance to make more commitments to increase fiscal stimuli is rightly open to criticism. But the Europeans have actually managed to agree a reasonably coherent position and in many respects, their positions are as, or more, polished than the US ones.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.