Europe faces a month that may decide the success of the European Central Bank’s bid to end the debt crisis, starting with the resumption of talks in Athens today between Greece’s international creditors and the government.
Leaders of the 17-nation euro area are confronting a tougher approach from the German-led pro-austerity bloc and unrest in Spain over budget cuts and a separatist movement in Catalonia. The first of three summits in the next three months, called “crucial” by European Union President Herman Van Rompuy, is set for Oct. 18-19, as investor sentiment toward the euro area that surged in September is on the wane.
“People are beginning to look at this in a more sober way” after the ECB bond-buying plan and a German high-court decision releasing bailout financing spurred optimism over the past month, Clemens Fuest, an economist at Oxford University’s Said Business School, said in an interview yesterday.
Political discord has underscored the inadequacy so far of ECB President Mario Draghi’s offer of unlimited bond buying to overcome that squabbling that has hamstrung crisis-fighting efforts. With a report today showing the euro area’s unemployment rate climbed to the highest on record at 11.4 percent, October marks three years since Greece’s newly elected Prime Minister George Papandreou revealed an unexpected hole in his budget, triggering the turmoil.
Spain’s 10-year bond yields fell 5 basis points to 5.89 percent as last week’s stress-test results showing a capital deficit of 59.3 billion euros ($76 billion) bolstered confidence in Spain’s banking system. The euro rose 0.4 percent to $1.2909 as of 11:54 a.m. in Frankfurt, recovering after losing 2 percent over the past two weeks.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, under pressure to trigger the ECB’s new financial weaponry by requesting assistance, pleaded over the weekend for national unity as he hit out at nationalists for hampering crisis-fighting efforts.
“The worst that can be done about the economic crisis that we are in at the moment is to break economic stability,” Rajoy told a Sept. 29 rally in Vitoria in Spain’s Basque region. Nationalists are trying to “cause more problems for people than we have at the moment as if there weren’t already enough.”
Rajoy suffered a setback last week when the president of the Catalan region, Artur Mas, called elections to seek greater self-determination for the regional government. Basque leader Inigo Urkullu, set to claim the regional presidency in an Oct. 21 vote, also said his party wants more autonomy.
Amid two days of protests in Madrid last week, Rajoy’s government unveiled a fifth austerity package in nine months. Spain’s Budget Ministry announced plans over the weekend to borrow 207.2 billion euros ($267 billion) next year, widening the country’s debt to 90.5 percent of gross domestic product.
“I don’t think we’re moving toward disaster, but it will become increasingly clear that regaining competitiveness will last a long time for these countries.” Fuest, who sits on an advisory panel for the German Finance Ministry, said by phone.
Leaders need to put aside disagreements, particularly on how bailout funds can be deployed to recapitalize struggling banks, EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said. A statement last week by finance ministers from Germany, Finland and the Netherlands that such funds can’t be used to cover past capital gaps marked a retreat from a June agreement.
“It seems there have been different interpretations about the June decision,” Rehn said in an interview yesterday in Haemeenlinna, Finland. Rehn also warned Finland not to prolong the crisis with its “hard-line stance on many issues.”
The resistance by the three ministers to covering “legacy assets” with bailout funds would potentially upend the objective of most European governments to unburden states’ balance sheets of bank-rescue funding -- severing the destructive link between bank and sovereign debt. It would also deal a blow to Ireland’s campaign to reduce its debt load.
The issue, along with the ECB bond-buying plan, will be discussed when European finance ministers meet on Oct. 8-9 in Luxembourg.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti waded into the fray as well last week, saying that the ECB shouldn’t impose additional conditions on nations seeking assistance. Concern about what extra conditions might entail has contributed to the reluctance of countries such as Italy and Spain to tap the bond buying that they themselves championed.
Oversight should be limited to establishing “checks so the countries continue to behave in that positive way,” Monti told Bloomberg Television in New York on Sept. 28. “If this is the conditionality that will be finally delivered, should a country be in a market situation suggesting its use, there would be nothing dishonorable.”
In Athens, officials from the so-called troika of international creditors -- the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund -- returned to continue their assessment of Greece’s creditworthiness. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras meets officials at 6 p.m. local time, while Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras meets at 2 p.m.
ECB Executive Board member Joerg Asmussen became the latest troika official to argue Greece may require more aid, saying on Sept. 28 that “there could be additional need for external financing” because of economic turmoil, even with a budget agreement by Samaras’ coalition government.
Samaras has struggled to broker an agreement with the troika and his coalition partners on a package that will include more than 7 billion euros of cuts to wages, pensions and benefits in a country battling a fifth year of recession and with nearly a quarter of the workforce unemployed.
With a general strike drawing as many as 35,000 people into downtown Athens last week, the government reached agreement on the bulk of a 13.5 billion-euro budget package. They must now win over the troika to access 31 billion euros of international support.
At the October summit, Germany will also introduce a plan to replace EU infrastructure subsidies with a common budget designed to assist indebted states in return for conditions, Die Welt reported, citing unnamed EU diplomats. The plan would be Germany’s answer to joint euro-area debt, or euro bonds, which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has long opposed.
The common budget could be funded by European taxpayers, as well as possible funds from a planned financial-transaction tax, Welt reported on Sept. 29. Martin Kotthaus, German Finance Ministry spokesman, declined to comment on the report.
“Intensive discussions are going on,” Kotthaus said. “There are many ideas being discussed.”