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Grant, Charles
03 November 2010

Charles Grant: Europe dances to Germany's tune

For much of this year, the response of European leaders to the eurozone crisis has been hesitant and fractious. But when the European Council met in Brussels on October 28th and 29th, the EU appeared to be acting with greater purpose and sense of direction. One reason for this change is that most Member States–including France–are now willing to swallow large doses of German leadership.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's influence was evident on the three key issues discussed by the summit: tightening rules on economic governance, setting up a new institution to deal with countries unable to borrow in the markets, and revising the EU treaties. However, Germany’s leadership has also brought problems. One is that Germany's determination to get its way has bruised several smaller states, as well as the Commission and the European Central Bank. Another is that its reluctance to discuss imbalances within the eurozone has prevented the EU from taking serious action to tackle them – though the imbalances have (in the view of many countries) contributed to the euro crisis.

On the first key issue, the summit adopted the report of the task force led by Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, on 'Strengthening economic governance in the EU'. The implementation of the report will mean stricter and more automatic punishments for countries that borrow too much, as the Germans – backed by the Austrians, Dutch, Finns and Swedes – have called for.

On the second issue, the new institution, EU leaders agreed to establish a 'crisis resolution framework' to replace or supplement the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) that they designed last May to support governments unable to borrow in the markets. The Germans say this restructuring should lead to private sector creditors taking a loss, and many governments go along with that. But at the summit Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, and the leaders of some southern states – who worry about their ability to borrow – argued against establishing that kind of restructuring mechanism at this stage. It could deter investors from lending to eurozone governments, Trichet argued, and make it even harder for them to service their debts. The Germans responded that tax-payers should not bear all the cost of bail-outs, and that markets should fret about potential losses in order to discipline borrowers.

On the third issue, treaty change, the summit asked van Rompuy to report back in December on whether the current treaties need to be amended to establish the crisis resolution mechanism. The answer to that question is already clear. For many months the Germans have argued that treaty change was needed to ensure that a new mechanism did not fall foul of their constitutional court. However, most governments – having spent the best part of a decade sorting out the Lisbon treaty – did not want another round of treaty change. Then at the Franco-German summit in Deauville on October 19th, Merkel persuaded France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to back treaty change (in return for a modest weakening of some sanction mechanisms).

The Germans did not get everything they wanted at the summit. There was little support for their scheme to deprive governments that borrow too much of voting rights. They have had to accept the van Rompuy report's argument that imbalances should be monitored. But the Germans achieved most of their key objectives. France had opposed stricter rules and quasi-automatic penalties for over-borrowed countries, a formal debt restructuring mechanism, and treaty change. But now it has accepted those German priorities – without appearing to get a great deal in return.

One French response is to stay close to the Germans in order to retain influence with them. That has been evident in Russia policy: in recent years France has emulated Germany's soft approach towards Moscow (which is not to say that that policy is necessarily wrong). And that response has also been evident on the euro. At the Brussels summit several smaller member-states complained about having to fall in behind deals stitched together by Paris and Berlin. But so long as the French continue to back the Germans on eurozone governance, their partners – and the EU institutions – have little choice but to follow.

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