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EU Pushes Ahead With Reforms Despite Opposition

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Action is progressing on a number of fronts for the European Union even as opposition from countries such as Germany and the U.K. continues to slow progress.

A plan has been proposed for a single banking framework for the eurozone, and in mid-September the European Parliament approved a measure that will allow the European Central Bank to supervise some 6,000 banks in 17 eurozone countries. However, it’s far from a done deal, despite the fact that the ECB is scheduled to oversee the banking union in just a year and there’s plenty of groundwork yet to be laid.

Germany, for one, has been outspoken in its challenges to a single entity’s oversight of the banks, and has also rejected the notion that the Single Resolution Mechanism has the legal groundwork to permit banks to be shut down, since that could endanger individual eurozone countries’ control of their own budgets.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble expressed his concerns over the European Commission’s proposal, as well as voicing opposition to a planned common resolution fund and the scope of the system. After Germany, along with Sweden and Slovakia, challenged those parts of the plan, EU financial services head Michel Barnier granted a concession concerning which banks would come under the ECB’s aegis and narrowed the scope to lenders doing cross-border business, regardless of size.

But that’s not enough for Germany, or for some other EU countries that see any attempt to create a true banking union as a challenge to individual national authority—particularly over budgets. And Germany, prior to elections, was in no mood to compromise. It remains to be seen whether the frosty atmosphere will thaw now that votes have been cast.

Angela Merkel retook her seat for a third term in a resounding victory, with her party taking 41.5% of the vote—its best result in 23 years. However, the Christian Democratic Union’s former coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, is out of a job, falling below the 5% necessary to hold seats in Parliament. It’s the first time since the end of World War II it has done so, and Merkel will have to seek support elsewhere despite holding a strong majority.

The Social Democrats and Greens are the most likely candidates for coalition partners, though wooing either party’s support will not be easy. Those two parties are also slightly more open to the possibility of a limited pooling of the debt of European countries, something Merkel has firmly opposed, as well as being more in favor of a push for growth rather than a concentrated focus on austerity. It is too soon to tell whether they might open the door to more flexibility regarding the banking union.

Another thorn in the EU’s side is the financial transaction tax. The European Council’s legal arm presented the European Commission with an opinion in early September criticizing the tax, saying that it “exceeded member states’ jurisdiction for taxation under the norms of international customary law.” However, the European Commission has criticized that opinion, saying that the plan does not breach any provisions of the EU’s treaty and that work on the tax would continue.

The U.K. and 15 other members of the EU have opposed the proposal, questioning how it can work when not all members plan to implement the tax. Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain all plan to put the tax into effect on stock and bond transactions, derivatives, repurchase agreements and securities lending.

According to John Blank, chief equity strategist at Zacks, the issue regarding the banking union “is the line between the competition authority, which already exists, and the banking supervisor that will come to exist.” Not only do a number of countries see the banking supervisor as a challenge to individual national authority, Blank said that the possibility exists that the banking supervisor taking action on one bank’s actions might create an advantage for another bank.

While the plan is for the ECB to take up its new supervisory role next October, and the new resolution body that would rescue or shut down troubled banks is planned to be operational by January 1, 2015, until that time, determining the fate of troubled banks is supposed to be done according to a set of common rules for all national authorities called the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive.

Germany’s Schaueble in particular has been outspoken on his opposition to a central European authority determining bank shutdowns, saying that individual nations should handle their own banks, with a central resolution board available to resolve disputes between national resolution authorities.

According to Blank, “The U.K., Sweden and Spain are with Germany on opposing a treaty article. They’re arguing that the actual EU constitution that is allowing or not allowing this [central authority] has to be changed.” The countries are proposing that Article 114 of the treaty, which is being used as the legal basis of the new resolution body, be changed. Otherwise, they want the legality of the authority to be based on another article in the treaty that requires unanimous approval—something highly unlikely to occur.

Blank predicted, “They will force a rewrite of that treaty article in the next six months.”

Another complication in uniting member nations is the financial transfer tax itself. Blank theorized that the transaction tax is destined to fund “a resolution fund like the savings and loan [fund] here.” While it will take “ten years of taxes on banks” to build up the resolution fund to 350 billion euros and the current European Stability Mechanism is already funded at 500 billion euros, the EU “will use the ESM as a backstop to the [resolution fund] till the fund amounts to something.”


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