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EU looks to Obama to build on global finance reform momentum

Published on 15/12/2008
BRUSSELS – With the US administration in its waning days, Europe seized the lead this year in pushing for an overhaul of global finance, hoping to find an eager ally next year in Barack Obama.

However, Europe only took the initiative on global financial reform after most governments were caught largely off guard by the crisis and struggled to coordinate a European response to it.

During the first nine months of the year, most EU finance officials looked on serenely as Washington struggled to get a grip on the financial crisis, confident that it was primarily an American problem.

But the bankruptcy of US investment bank Lehman triggered a worldwide collapse in investor confidence, dragging Europe into the throes of crisis and forcing a number of governments to bailout their banks.

Despite Europe’s closely integrated economies, the lack of coordination became apparent as governments rushed to prop up banks active in their countries with little consideration for what their EU partners were doing.

A sense of unity did not emerge until October when leaders from the 15 euro countries, plus Britain, agreed to boost the hardest-hit banks through cash injections and underwriting loans between financial institutions.

The full 27-nation EU soon followed suit, but the crisis convinced many leaders, and few more so than French President Nicolas Sarkozy, that drastic action was needed to stabilise the financial system and avoid future turmoil.

Amid calls for a "new capitalism", Sarkozy went to Washington to lobby the United States lameduck president, George W. Bush, to host the 20 leading economic powers at a summit on reforming the international financial order.

Bush duly gathered leaders from the Group of 20 biggest economies for an unprecedented meeting in Washington, where they agreed to a wide ranging financial reform plan largely reflecting European demands for change.

"Europe showed leadership and unity in conditions that were made favourable by a US administration that was reaching the end of its mandate," said Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of Brussels-based Bruegel economic think tank.

"At the same time, there’s no reason to be triumphant because it was very difficult for Europe to reach a joint position with everyone going off in their own way at first," he added.

Prior to the financial crisis, EU calls for international reform in the financial sector on such things as hedge funds fell on deaf ears on the other side of the Atlantic.

With Washington warmer to reform since crisis brought Wall Street to its knees, many European officials hope to keep up the reform momentum next year, banking on US president-elect Barack Obama being more inclined towards regulation than his predecessor.

As attention has turned from tackling financial crisis to reviving economic activity, Europe has high hopes of also coordinating economic recovery plans across the Atlantic.

"All the indications that we have show that president-elect Obama’s intentions converge with the plan that we will adopt: economic stimulus coupled with work for green jobs, infrastructure, energy efficiency," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said.

"If you look at our proposal, our proposal is about green jobs, infrastructure, energy efficiency," he added. "Our recovery plan will thus be a sound platform for both a renewed transatlantic effort and the G20 process."