Closing down sale at shopping centre in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, March 2009. Photo : Jerome Lorieau.

Finance ministers perplexed in the extreme

While the EU is bent on cleansing the financial markets of gamblers and toxic assets and taming the banking sector, London, Dublin and parts of Eastern Europe are fighting for free markets.

Published on 3 June 2009 at 14:05
Closing down sale at shopping centre in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, March 2009. Photo : Jerome Lorieau.

In response to the unrelenting question as to how much more tax money he’ll have to slip the banks, the German finance minister scowls: “I don’t know. I won’t know till after the fact.” And when late in the evening, after a cabinet meeting in Berlin or a council of ministers in Brussels, someone asks him how he’s feeling, Peer Stainbrück is wont to grumble, “Shitty!”

Europe’s finance ministers are really not to be envied these days. They ought to be pumping more and yet more billions into the economy, resounds the refrain from Washington DC. Whilst Brussels comes at them from the other side with threats of penal proceedings for excessive national debt. What’s more, the 27 EU treasurers still have to handle a very special job from their higher-ups: to get a fix on new ways to regulate the market. The Commission has made some initial proposals, Parliament passed an initial law: large-scale interbank loans are to be limited in future to 25 per cent of equity. And each bank has to hold on to at least five per cent of any risky assets it sells to customers. But that’s all for now. And the splashy announcements are unlikely to be followed any time soon by further concrete action.

The word from treasury circles is that there is a rift running right through the EU: the old Continental core is once again at loggerheads with the English, the Irish and some of the new club members from the East. London and Dublin, spearheading the resistance, are blocking anything and everything liable to cause problems for their financial sector. That is actually understandable, seeing as Great Britain and Ireland hardly have any other industries left with a future. But this is a recklessly risky road for Europe to go.

In theory, at least, almost everyone agrees. Chancellor Angela Merkel was delighted that even Britain’s standoffish PM Gordon Brown spoke out clearly at the meeting of heads of State “for a stronger step towards regulation”. Only he apparently neglected to tell his own cabinet, permanent secretaries and officials about his change of course. The EU majority still seem determined to restore the primacy of politics even in the latterly largely deregulated markets – at least as far as possible. These suggestions already go way too far for some, not far enough for others. The Commission’s hedge funds bill has “more holes than Swiss cheese”, opines Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, leader of the Socialist faction in the European Parliament. Even France’s conservative finance minister Christine Lagarde sees dangerous loopholes. She cites Brussels’ intention of allowing funds certified in other regions of the world into the EU without any further vetting, which she fears could prove a “Trojan horse” for intruders from tax havens abroad.

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The British, in particular, beg to differ. Indeed, English funds sentinels make quite sure the gentlemen in the City are not subjected to unreasonable demands. They threaten counteraction: if the leading-strings get too tight, they will simply seek out other places to trade in Asia or America – for which the British press are whooping up public opinion. Applause for that sentiment is coming chiefly from Europe’s new Eastern members, where many politicians need not protect any banking centres themselves, but stand ideologically close to the Anglo-Irish position. Some believe an unregulated economic dynamic does more for the economy than a made-in-Germany security construct. Many of them grew up in the straitjacket of Communist society and studied free market economics at US universities.

The West-East resistance is already making some headway: Europe is hardly likely to unleash a Community watchdog with real teeth. Control will remain in national hands. In all likelihood, the only bone of contention will be how closely the national overseers are to compare notes, and according to what rules they are to assess risks and, if need be, intervene in the market. “Only the chiefs themselves” could still see to it that more is agreed in June than “insubstantial chapter headings”, hopes one Brussels summit organiser. He believes French president Nicolas Sarkozy would like to present himself at home as the “Great Regulator”. Berlin’s chancellor Merkel will hardly want to remain on the sidelines – in the middle of an election campaign. And Gordon Brown, he adds, has already gone too far out on a rhetorical limb to block everything now. But many experts doubt whether all that will be enough to learn the right lessons for the future from the present crisis.


EU proposals for financial market regulation

1) Stricter equity requirements for banks, so as to prevent outsized high-risk deals. 2) Mandatory registration for big hedge funds, which are to disclose loan-financed leverage deals as well. 3) Guidelines for salaries and bonuses in the financial sector, which are to be tied to the company’s long-term performance. 4) A licensing requirement for credit ratings agencies, which are not supposed to both advise and rate the same clients any more. 5) Europe-wide monitoring of financial market players and common regulations.

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