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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.