France and Germany on Monday proposed suspending the voting rights of European Union members who persistently break budget deficit limits, a major reform that would put teeth for the first time in the union’s economic pact, but one that faces legal hurdles.
The move was proposed after another Wall Street ratings agency slashed Greece’s credit rating to junk levels and signs emerged that Spain could be the next nation to be shut out of global credit markets.
Spanish leaders disclosed that some of the nation’s banks, which are thought to hold substantial amounts of Spain’s debt, are having difficulty obtaining loans from other banks — in a sign that investors may be starting to boycott the nation as they did with Greece.
That raised the prospect that Spain could become the first nation to tap into a $1 trillion loan guarantee facility set up by the EU to help heavily indebted members.
“Spain and any other country knows that they can make use of this mechanism” if “problems” develop, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin. Spanish officials denied that they will seek aid any time soon.
To discourage nations from getting to the point of near-insolvency again, the leaders of the two largest EU nations agreed to propose a far-reaching reform that would deny voting rights to chronic overspenders, like Greece, at an EU summit on Thursday.
But Mr. Sarkozy said lawyers will have to determine whether an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty that formed the EU would be necessary — a messy and time-consuming process that could torpedo the measure.
EU leaders also are drafting disciplinary measures short of voting suspension to enforce the treaty’s limit on yearly deficits, set at 3 percent of a nation’s yearly economic output. EU members agree to the limit when they join the union, but most have flouted it at one time or another.
Analysts say stricter enforcement of the deficit limit and other measures aimed at harmonizing the wide disparities in economic policies among European nations are needed to prevent future debt crises and to preserve the integrity of the union.
“If the eurozone is to survive over the long term, these divergences must be addressed,” said Howard Archer, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
If the eurozone is unable to find ways to both resolve today’s debt problems and ensure they do not recur, it “will be liable to hemorrhage members” as countries bail out to gain more control over their economies, he said.
“Stitching together 16 countries with such diverse economic, social and cultural backgrounds turns out to be a lot more difficult than anticipated,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University at Channel Islands. “The euro concept will be tested again and again.”
He noted that the union was formed originally more for political reasons than economic ones.
“After the two world wars, the key countries including Germany had decided that the best path to a political union was through economic cooperation. If the current leaders in Germany and France still believe in the concept, they will try hard to keep the eurozone together. If not, the zone could shrink in size.”