Europe sweetens the pill for Spain

Spanish bonds will get cheaper, but the EU wants control of the banks in return

At an extremely late hour in the day, the European summit appears to have agreed to modest, but important, changes in the structure of European bailouts.

The most important alteration for many is the fact that the funds provided to Spain by the European Stability Mechanism (annouced on the 9th and formally requested on the 25th) are to be provided without seniority. Previously, loans from the ESM are given subject to a proviso – enforced through convention rather than legality – that they are to be repaid before any other loans.

This is problematic for countries in trouble, since it makes it a lot harder for them to receive other funds. If you are a private investor, the last country you want to lend to is one which, if it goes bust, has to pay off a €100bn+ loan to the European Central Bank before you see a penny. As a result, when Spain first announced it was planning to seek a bailout, the first thing to happen was a spike, of around 5 per cent, in its bond yields (the cost of borrowing).

It now appears that seniority is to be "renounced" for the ESM's loan to Spain. It may still have implicit seniority – in any bankruptcy, the debtor has some choice of the order in which they pay off creditors of equal status, and Spain is unlikely to want to piss off the EU too much – but private lenders will be able to feel slightly more comfortable in giving money to the country. The question for the ESM now (and there are always further questions) is whether this is a one-off exemption, or new policy. And if it is new policy, can it be applied retroactively? Spain is, after all, not the only country with a bailout from the EU.

The summit also agreed to allow funds from the bailout to be injected directly into Spain's banks. The statement from the summit affirms that "it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns," and that the ESM should be allowed to recapitalise banks. Previously, the money would have gone directly into a Spanish government vehicle, which would have paid out to the banks; the ESM is now capable of skipping that step, which should save everyone some time and money.

More important than what the EU has allowed, though, are the concessions it has demanded. Instead of there being 17 different banking supervisors throughout the eurozone, there will now be just one, a major step towards the creation of a pan-European banking union. The big change is that Eurozone authorities –  for which, read "Germany" – will now be able to force struggling banks throughout the Eurozone to recapitalise, rather than waiting for the individual sovereigns to decide. 

Angela Merkel is happy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.