- Associated Press - Sunday, February 6, 2011

BRUSSELS | The sense of panic over the fate of the euro and the 17-country currency union’s weakest members has eased on financial markets, for the moment. But pressure on European leaders to get a grip on the Continent’s debt crisis has never been higher.

Investors are calmer because they have set their hopes on a “comprehensive package” of measures that, European Union officials promise, will dispel any doubts over the bloc’s ability to deal with even the most severe shocks.

One thing is clear: If the contents of the package disappoint, politicians will have missed their chance to get one step ahead of the bond market vigilantes that have driven the pace of the crisis and their response. At their summit Friday, EU leaders wrangled over what exactly will go into that package.

“Now the challenge is for Europe to deal with some of the systemic problems of the eurozone, and I am very glad there is a realization and I believe more optimism about our will and our capability to do so,” said Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, whose country’s debt woes kicked off the Continent’s crisis more than a year ago.

No firm decisions are likely before another summit at the end of March, Brussels diplomats warned ahead of the meeting, but Friday’s get-together - originally convened to focus on energy and innovation - was expected to provide a key opportunity to compare and clash over different ideas.

Among those is a Franco-German proposal on closer economic convergence among the 17 countries that use the euro, due to be presented by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over lunch with their European counterparts and Jean Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank.

“These will be about improving competitiveness and at the same time making it clear that we have the political will to grow together, especially in the euro group, but other countries are also invited,” Mrs. Merkel said of the plans - dubbed the “pact for competitiveness” - as she arrived in Brussels.

The pact, widely leaked by government officials ahead of the meeting, calls on countries to introduce “debt brakes” into their national constitutions, align retirement ages with life expectancy and other demographic developments, get rid of automatic salary increases in line with inflation, create national bank resolution plans, and find a common basis for corporate taxation.

Berlin and Paris argue that commitments along those lines from eurozone governments are necessary to ensure caps on budget deficits that were widely ignored in the years before the crisis.

But the demands will be tough to swallow for some governments. Belgium and Luxembourg would have a hard time taking away automatic salary increases from their citizens, while the Irish - already feeling humiliated after being forced to take a $93 billion bailout - are unlikely to make any concessions on their corporate tax rate, one of the lowest in Europe.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, usually a supporter of German demands for more fiscal discipline, said that outside intervention in wage negotiations was “wrong” and that he thought it was unlikely the EU would be allowed to regulate retirement ages.

For the Germans, however, it’s clear that demands from the European Commission, the EU’s executive, and some other countries to boost the size and powers of the eurozone’s bailout fund have only a chance if Berlin gets something in return.

The “pact for competitiveness” is another example of close cooperation between France and Germany that has characterized the bloc’s crisis responses in recent months.

As in previous instances, Paris is more open to new measures.

“We are at a key moment,” a French government official said Thursday. “The markets are turning; the doubt that existed over the solidity of the euro and the solidarity of the eurozone is dissipating. It’s the moment to take a big step ahead. So we are ready to put all these subjects on the table.” The official declined to be named in line with department policy.

The offerings are plentiful. The European Commission has thrown its weight behind boosting the powers of the European Financial Stability Facility, the eurozone’s contribution to the region’s $ 1 trillion bailout fund.

If decided, these measures would constitute a fundamental overhaul of Europe’s crisis strategy. So far, that strategy has revolved around offering expensive bailout loans to countries on the brink of bankruptcy in return for painful budget cuts and economic restructuring.

Many analysts have warned that those cuts make it almost impossible for struggling economies to start growing again. The European Central Bank also has supported a wider role for the stability facility, all too happy to abandon its government bond-buying program and focus on keeping inflation in check.

Among the suggestions: letting the financial facility buy the bonds of vulnerable governments on the open market, thus stabilizing their price and borrowing costs; providing countries with a short-term liquidity line when one-off measures such as expensive bank recapitalizations threaten to sink their finances (as with bailed-out Ireland), or even lending them the money to buy back their own bonds.

Right now, bonds issued by cash-strapped states such as Greece, Ireland or Portugal are trading at a discount because of doubts about the governments’ ability to pay them back - theoretically making a buyback an easy way of cutting a country’s overall debt.

To do that, the stability fund would likely need more money, and the European Commission has asked states to lift its effective lending capacity to the $605 billion initially advertised. At the moment, it can lend only about $344 billion because of various buffers required to make the fund’s bonds attractive to investors.

On top of that is a push to cut the interest rates that Greece and Ireland have to pay for their rescue loans. New bank stress tests, to be published this summer, are meant to clear up holes in the European banking system that previous rounds of tests failed to reveal.

Getting Germany and some of the eurozone’s other fiscally strong states to sign off on these ideas won’t be easy, but for the first time since debt fears gripped Greece more than a year ago, they have the luxury of time to find their response.

“The time has come where one has to move from reactive to proactive,” said Andre Sapir, a fellow of Brussels think tank Bruegel. “Governments are realizing that they have to fulfill these expectations.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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