Europe clamps down on debt in bid to banish Spanish blues
Europe clamped down on debt on Thursday with decisions to sanction countries that overspend, to publish banks' solvency levels and introduce a new bank levy in a bid to banish dark clouds over Spain.
The 27 leaders laid foundations for cross-border EU economic governance, especially across the troubled eurozone, as Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero slammed "unfounded rumours" about bailouts and bust balance sheets.
European Union president Herman Van Rompuy said that "stricter supervision of budgets and competitiveness," with both "preventive and corrective" measures, "may seem a small step, but will prove a leap forward".
He added that a move to police the "overall sustainability" of debt, widening the focus of surveillance, covered "a lot of parameters including private debt", meaning banks and household borrowings as well as public deficits.
But differences remained on how far to go in the creation of new penalties, intended for application after Van Rompuy produces a definitive report on economic governance in October.
These will apply only to those countries that share the euro currency, and are likely to steer clear of withdrawing voting rights from the worst offenders for fear of opening a Pandora's box in treaty change negotiations.
"We already have the solutions and the measures needed," said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, pointing out that existing sanctions have never been used.
The decisions were taken after Madrid successfully auctioned off a major tranche of its sovereign debt, at only moderately higher interest rates.
"There is nothing better than transparency to demonstrate solvency," Zapatero said in order to "leave all these unfounded rumours behind".
International Monetary Fund chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn will visit Zapatero in Madrid on Friday, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy leading widespread expressions of support by insisting there was "no problem" with Spain's finances, after strong demand for government bonds at auction.
Spain led the way with a decision on Wednesday to publish the results of "stress tests" on its banks that fellow leaders followed.
The assembled leaders also agreed to introduce a system of bank levies, although London insisted it would only ever function as a collection of coordinated national taxes, and not to prop up ailing eurozone banks.
New British Prime Minister David Cameron, at his first EU summit, said Downing Street would announce its own bank levy in an emergency budget due on Tuesday.
"We don't want to have some sort of European-determined bank levy with a specific use of the funds," he said.
By the time specific changes come in next year, Estonia will have become the 17th country to switch to the euro, after a green light was also given to their entry on January 1.
Ballooning debt levels in countries such as Greece, which recently required a 110-billion euro bailout from the EU and the IMF, have pushed leaders to think more of the effect of their decisions on their neighbours.
Berlin and Paris also wanted to see a tax on financial transactions proposed at a G20 summit in Toronto, but unlike the bank levies, which the EU will put to G20 leaders as a bloc-wide proposal in Canada next weekend, this idea will only be taken forward for discussion.
As a senior EU official said, a transaction tax is "in the pipeline, but I wouldn't be able to answer where exactly it is in the pipeline".
Put bluntly by one diplomat, London simply "doesn't want it", for fear of banishing its lucrative finance industry to Switzerland or other non-EU offshore centres.
Deals were also cut to allow Brussels to vet the grand lines in member state budgets and open EU entry negotiations with Iceland despite anger in both countries over withheld compensation to savers with a collapsed Icelandic bank.
© 2010 AFP