Germany, France at odds over EU banking supervisor

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Associated Press

Posted on December 4, 2012 at 3:03 AM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 4 at 10:36 AM

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union countries are dragging themselves to a year-end summit with a heavy load of unfinished business aimed at shoring up confidence in the region in the wake of the three-year financial crisis.

The 27 finance ministers remained split Tuesday on the establishment of a new European single supervisor to keep wayward banks in check, and were forced to squeeze in another extraordinary meeting next week on the eve of a Dec 13-14 summit of EU leaders in Brussels.

Add to that deep-rooted disagreements on the establishment of a multi-annual EU budget and the seemingly endless strife to keep Greece on the safe side of the brink of bankruptcy, and it adds up to a chaotic outlook for the EU over the next weeks.

The establishment of a banking union, in particular, includes some decisions that have to be taken by Dec. 31. The supervision of EU banks to rein in reckless action is key to that.

"I want to stress that if that would not happen that would be bad in terms of the market reactions," European Central Bank Vice President Vitor Constancio told Tuesday's meeting of finance ministers.

As part of its plans to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis crippling the region, the EU has been working toward setting up a "banking union" — a unified playbook for all the region's banks. The single bank supervisor is a vital part of this plan and must be up and running before other measures can be introduced: European-wide depositors' insurance; a single method for winding down bankrupt banks; and allowing the European bailout fund to directly help banks in trouble, instead of lending money only to governments.

And this time it is disagreement between the two traditional drivers of European integration — France and Germany — that is at the heart of the delays.

The continent's two largest economic powers are divided over how many banks the supervisor would be allowed to oversee and what powers the ECB should have within the supervision.

"The position of France is steadfast. It is all banks that are covered by the banking supervision," said French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said "it would be very difficult to get approval by the German parliament if (the deal) would leave the supervision for all the German banks to European banking supervision."

"Nobody believes that it would work," Schaeuble said. Germany has hundreds of local banks which operate differently from large multinationals like Deutsche Bank. Schaeuble has been pushing for the new supervisor to oversee only the few dozen largest banks in Europe.

On top of that, he said the ECB had to remain at arm's length from any supervisory decision-making it takes on to protect its independence. The ECB sets monetary policy for the 17 EU countries that use the euro and is committed to remain independent of political pressure. Germany fears the ECB's independence may be lost if it has to negotiate the bailout of a bank in one of the member states.

"The last decision cannot be left to the governing council of the ECB," Schaeuble said of bank bailouts.

In contrast, Moscovici came out strongly for an agreement with the ECB in the driver's seat.

He advocates supervision of all 6,000 institutions that have a banking license in the EU.

"In the end, it must be the ECB that has the responsibility on the whole. Otherwise, there is no real system of banking supervision," Moscovici said.

The banking sector has been seen as a prime cause of Europe's three-year crisis and agreement to fix it as an essential part to avoid a recurrence.

Not only have banks taken on bad investments, but national supervisors have often been reluctant to impose restructuring plans on them, particularly since many banks operate across borders. A common European supervisor, proponents say, would bypass the national politics and do what is needed to keep the continent's financial sector healthy.

The 10 EU nations not using the euro want to be included in a banking union to create a level playing field within the full EU. But some countries, including the U.K. and Sweden, also worry it could stifle their financial sectors if too harsh.

European leaders have agreed, in theory, to cede significant amounts of sovereignty to fix the banking issue and runaway spending of several member states.

As so often before, the practical implementation has proved difficult. The crisis has highlighted the many divisions within the EU, critics say, at a time when a strong and united vision was needed.

Closer banking and monetary cooperation will be a key topic at next week's summit meeting of EU government leaders, and a deepening rift between traditional allies France and Germany would complicate progress.

On the EU budget, differences have been running even deeper, with Germany leaning closer to Britain on keeping spending under tight control to match the austerity drive of many member states. France has been leaning closer to the nations urging sustained investment to boost growth.

Those disagreements are so vast that a special summit will likely not be called before next February.

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Don Melvin contributed to this article.

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