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

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.