Europe at odds over path toward banking union as Germany advocates cautious 2-step approach

BERLIN – European leaders are increasingly at odds over how to create a full-fledged banking union, the bloc’s key project to stabilize its financial system and turn the tide in its stubborn debt crisis.

A majority of the 17 countries in the European Union’s common euro currency union want to swiftly create a central banking regulator as well as an authority that can rescue or unwind ailing banks.

Berlin, however, says the EU should not rush. It argues that setting up such a rescue authority would require changing EU treaties — a potentially cumbersome and time-consuming process.

“We should not make promises we cannot keep,” Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble wrote in Monday’s Financial Times, proposing that Europe should at first rely on co-operation between national agencies.

That risks stirring impatience among others in Europe, who advocate moving as fast as possible in establishing the banking union to stabilize the 17-nation eurozone’s financial system after more than three years of the debt crisis.

Schaeuble’s counterpart in France, Spain and Portugal called for quick progress in setting up the banking union.

“We don’t have time to lose, the coming months will be very important,” said Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Europe’s banking industry has been one of the main causes of the eurozone’s financial crisis. Governments in countries such as Spain and Ireland had to step in to rescue their banks, which had been brought close to collapse by toxic property investments. These rescue attempts caused the governments’ debt levels to increase to dangerously high levels.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s top financial official, argued that proceeding with the banking union was vital.

“I believe our work on doing this, establishing a banking union, will be one of the most crucial tasks at European level over the coming months and years for creating the foundations for growth and jobs,” Rehn said in Brussels after a meeting of the 17 eurozone finance ministers.

“Completing the repair of the financial sector is not about bailing out bankers,” Rehn said. “It is about letting credit flow to unleash investment that is essential for a sustainable recovery and job creation.”

Schaeuble wrote Monday that Germany will assess “with an open mind” a proposal to be presented next month by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, for the creation of an authority to deal with failing banks. He warned that existing EU treaties “do not suffice to anchor beyond doubt a new and strong central resolution authority.”

The minister argued that when a bank is wound up, money and jobs are usually lost, prompting those affected to seek redress — meaning that a new European authority would need a solid legal base.

“Amending the treaties takes time,” he wrote. “Luckily, the alternative is not between a legally shaky resolution authority now and the postponement of repair work on the banks.”

Schaeuble said Europe can’t “rely on ad hoc approaches until 2018,” as foreseen by a draft EU plan, but also suggested Europe could hurt itself by setting an unrealistic timetable for the union. Initial predictions that a single European banking supervisor would start work at the beginning of this year “cost the EU credibility,” he wrote.

The supervisor, to be anchored with the European Central Bank, is now expected to start work in the middle of next year.

Schaeuble said a mechanism to make decisions on winding up banks, based on a network of national authorities, could start work once a European banking supervisor is operating. He said it would rely on national funds instead of a single European resolution fund, “which the industry would take many years to fill.”

The drawback of that solution would be that it fails to achieve what was touted as one of the banking union’s most important goals — pooling the financial sector’s risk at a European level, shielding weak governments from being dragged down by failing banks in their country.

Schaeuble acknowledged that the result of his approach “would be a timber-framed, not a steel-framed, banking union,” but that, he argued, would buy time to create the legal basis for a more ambitious project.

The ECB has insisted on a timely implementation of all steps to complete the banking union, including the resolution authority.

“The goal is making the eurozone more resilient against banking crises through the orderly, cross-border unwinding of systemically relevant banks without burdening neither the taxpayer nor the central bank,” ECB executive board member Joerg Asmussen told German daily Die Welt.

Asmussen rejected Schaeuble’s idea of a two-step approach. “All the instruments should be ready at the same time as the European banking oversight,” he said.

It also remained to be seen how much support Germany will get for its position from other countries in Europe, where many would like to move faster on creating the banking union.

France’s Moscovici said as he arrived at a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels that Europe “must go as far as possible” within existing treaties and then look at what might require legal changes.

“Our belief is that we can go very far and that we must go very quickly,” he said.

The Netherlands’ Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs the eurozone finance ministers’ meetings, said that “the Germans are putting forward understandable questions which will have to be dealt with on the way forward.”

“But I don’t see why that should retain us from making progress on the banking union,” he said.


Juergen Baetz and Don Melvin contributed to this report from Brussels.