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Monday, March 14, 2011

The euro pact and Germany: Triumph or a coming bust-up?

The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard describes the weekend deal at the EU summit as a "total German triumph". He paraphrases Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that "whoever wants credit must fulfil our conditions".

Regular readers of this blog will know that we rate Ambrose very highly (at a time when most other journalists, including the FT gang, couldn't spot a currency-related credit crisis from a yard's distance, he warned against what we've seen in the eurozone over the last year).

On this one, however, we think that his assessment might be a bit premature.

Perceptions matter tremendously in markets as well as in politics. And the perception in Germany is certainly not one of triumph.

Die Welt
quotes a top EU diplomat describing Merkel's "pact for the euro" as an "empty shell", predicting that "in the coming weeks the spreads of troubled countries could further increase". An analysis in the newspaper notes that the pact "remains far beneath the original expectations of the German government", given the large room for manoeuvre that member states are given in its implementation. The headline in the paper reads: "Merkel's secret euro capitulation".

And Merkel might even face a fight within her own coalition about the terms and crucial details of the euro pact.

Although FDP leader and Foreign Minister Westerwelle called the deal an acceptable compromise, liberal MP Frank Schaeffler said that "the result contradicts the position of the FDP group in parliament”. Volker Wissing, finance spokesman of the liberal faction in the Bundestag stressed that an earlier agreement on this among majority parties in the Bundestag "had excluded what has now been decided at government level", as he expected "very difficult talks", which could endanger the German Parliament's approval of the deal.

"It is surely close to a transfer union," Michael Meister, deputy parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrat (CDU) party added (and it was not meant as a positive remark). CSU MP Thomas Silberhorn bluntly said that "the government has stepped over a red line that the parliamentary groups had clearly defined."

Just ahead of the summit, another top Christian Democrat politician, Bundestag Speaker Norbert Lammert, had voiced concern about the whole thing, lamenting that "many representatives still don't feel sufficiently informed".

It is not clear whether these (prominent) backbenchers will in the end vote down the agreement. Bloomberg claimed this afternoon that several backbenchers have signalled their willingness to vote for the deal when it reaches the Bundestag.

But the strong talk is a reminder of the nervousness about all of this in Germany, especially in the run-up to the key regional elections in two weeks time in Baden-W├╝rttemberg - a stronghold for Merkel's CDU where the party could now suffer defeat.

It doesn't help that outgoing Bundestag President Axel Weber has stepped up his criticism of current eurozone policies. In a hearing at a Bundestag committee this week, he will warn European governments against making any bond purchases as a means of bailing out weak Eurozone countries, saying
"the result would be that private creditors and national financial policymakers would be relieved even further of their responsibility, and taxpayers of the countries doing the financing would be burdened with further, possibly substantial risks."
Chances are that Merkel will manage to push through this deal in the short term - though the German Parliament may demand some red meat in return for giving its approval.

But, as the EU correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Werner Mussler, warns: “the consistent loyalty of Germans to Europe is facing a test.” And Europe's biggest tabloid Bild today carries the headline, "saving the euro gets increasingly expensive!".

Some members of the German establishment have already started questionning the very premise on which Merkel has based her bail-out concessions (saving the euro, even with the risk of more bail-outs and a move away from traditional Bundesbank policy is cheaper than refusing to pay). For example, the former boss of the German industry federation BDI, Hans-Olaf Henkel. Although a former euro enthusiast, he now argues in favour of splitting up the eurozone, writing that it has become “a transfer union, a community of redistribution in which a new competitive discipline will emerge: who can tap the others for the greatest amount."

Berlin's biggest fear is that Mr. Henkel is finding it increasingly easier to recruit more allies.


john kelly said...

Good blog but you've missed the "beneficial crisis" issue in all of this. EU elite will see all this turmoil as the opportunity to get what they want, namely a single economic and political union, albeit perhaps not of 27 but of the strong part of the split referred to. It would then regroup and press on with the project - ever closer union.

John Kelly

Jon Moore said...

Surely this is all about buying time to allow the German, French and hopefully our banks to sell down their PIGS bonds prior to the inevitable defaults and restructuring of their national debts which will have to be undertaken sooner or later since a transfer union is neither workable nor politically sustainable in Germany. As for France, the French have not woken up to the problem yet, nor have their voters been informed, as is usually the case; the poilitical elite in France is as contemptuous of voters as is the EU behemoth.