Friday, 19 August 2011

Merkel-Sarkozy letter: My reading

In the blog post Merkel and Sarkozy: Eurozone letter to Van Rompuy you find links to the letter on two websites in three languages, as well as transcripts of the press conference and some press releases.

Here is a link to the letter in English, as posted on the presidential Élysée web portal.

A few lines into the text, we start to wonder when the French and German leaders were last updated about growth figures and events on the financial markets and stock exchanges, as well as sentiments:

In the last months, the Heads of State and Government of the euro area have taken all the necessary measures in order to preserve the stability of the economic and monetary union.

Merkel and Sarkozy refer to paragraph 16 of the declaration of heads of state or governement of the euro area and EU institutions (my addition, based on original) of 21 July 2011, which said:

16. We invite the President of the European Council, in close consultation with the President of the Commission and the President of the Eurogroup, to make concrete proposals by October on how to improve working methods and enhance crisis management in the euro area.

In other words, the declaration referred to recognised institutional players, without inciting member state activism, although the letter somehow leaves the reader with such an impression.

We should be grateful for every effective and democratic proposal to stop the worsening slide. Let us quit nit-picking in order to look at how France and Germany propose to strenghten further the governance of the euro area, in line with existing treaties.

Eurozone governance

Whereas the leaders spoke about ”economic government” in both French and German at the press conference, the letter more humbly refers to enhanced ”economic governance” of the euro area.

However, the French version uses ”gouvernement économique” whereas the German version resembles the English translation. Strange, when speaking about key concepts.

The Twin Peaks solution of two annual summits could hardly be more intergovernmental, although only the regularity and the special chairman are new in this ongoing coup d'état.

Having just wanted to set their leading role in concrete, the wish to reinforce the eurogroup of finance ministers sounds as reassuring as the first pronouncement about human rights following a military coup.

The leaders must doubt the analytical capacities of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF, since the new European Stability Mechanism ESM should be equipped with ”complementing” analytical capacities in particular as regards debt and capital markets analysis. No prizes for guessing if transparency and accountability would decrease, or the ”unseen hand” of political remote control from the zone's main capitals increase.

Market reactions have shown that the proposals are seen as ineffective, but the more I think about them, the more I find them harmful as well.

Constitutional debt-brake

Merkel and Sarkozy propose a mandatory constitutional debt-brake for every euro area country. Germany already has one, and Sarkozy is trying to rally support for an internal balanced budget rule in France.

The member states are already internationally bound by the Stability and Growth Pact (1997), but how many of them are willingly going to enshrine such a rigid and permanent rule internally?

Although I am a firm supporter of sustainable public finances, hard and fast rules make bad law.

What happens when one or more euro area parliaments refuse to obey the diktat?

It sounds pompous, but essentially the euro area states have politically agreed to the Ecofin recommendations, so they should carry them out:

All Member States of the euro area should confirm without delay their resolve to swiftly implement the European recommendations for fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, especially as regards labour-market, competition in services and pensions policy, and adapt appropriately their draft budget.

The leaders sent a signal on coordination of direct taxes, but the required unanimity for meaningful common rules remains as elusive as ever.

Macro-economic conditionality seems to be targeted at the weaker economies with potentially greater problems to master their public finances as well.

Euro area legislation (Article 136 TFEU) could give the Franco-German aspirations a shot in the arm.

Financial Transaction Tax

We can expect a joint proposal on a Financial Transaction Tax, also known as a Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax.

The United Kingdom has rejected it before seeing the proposals (Commission one included), so eurozone Ireland has been content to require an EU-wide tax. Merkel's coalition partner FDP has sent the same kind of signals.

The European public favours a tax on financial transactions, but without fiscal and political union this remains just another example of the limits of intergovernmental deal-making.


All in all, the Franco-German proposals would enhance the influence of the heads of state or government (of the biggest eurozone states) at the expense of the other EU institutions, without solving the fundamental problems of the euro area: lack of robust institutions and democratic legitimacy at European level.

How about the confidence factor?

BBC News tells us that European stock markets continued to fall today.

Ralf Grahn