MacroScope

We need to talk about Juncker

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt will host Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and Dutch premier Mark Rutte at his private residence over two days to discuss reforming the EU and ”achieving a more efficient EU that is focused on creating jobs and growth”. 

After EU elections delivered strong returns for far-right and far-left parties, EU leaders say they have recognized the need to refocus on what matters to their people. But at the same time, the orthodox camp is determined to keep bearing down on debt and the bloc’s heads are arguing over who should take the top jobs in Brussels which set the tone.

Cameron is publicly opposed to Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, who he regards as an arch federalist, becoming European Commission President though as the candidate for the centre-right EPP group of  parties which came top in the election he is in pole position.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who would have been favoured by Britain, ruled herself out of the running on Friday.
Both Rutte and Reinfeldt are believed to harbour doubts about Junker too but Cameron is struggling to build a blocking minority. The man who could tip the balance is Italy’s Matteo Renzi, travelling in Vietnam and China this week.

Cameron faces another headache. His pulled his Conservative members of the European Parliament out of the EPP group because it was too much in favour of further EU integration and set up his own group, which has quietly welcomed in the anti-euro True Finns and the far-right anti-immigration Danish People’s Party into the fold.

Juncker’s star fading?

EU leaders didn’t get far last night in addressing the voter backlash dealt to them in European elections but it seems less likely that Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker will end up with Brussels’ top job, a first indication that things are on the move.

Britain’s David Cameron has been determined to block the arch federalist from becoming European Commission president and, after the strong showing by far-right and far-left parties, others also seem to see the need for a newer broom, possibly even Angela Merkel.

Juncker is a veteran of EU politics and is a consummate deal-maker, and as head of the centre-right EPP group which topped the weekend polls should be the heir presumptive. But he is very much of the old school.

Evening of reckoning

EU heads of government and state dine in Brussels this evening to discuss their response to a big slap in the face from the bloc’s electorates.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who bucked the trend by winning handsomely as an incumbent prime minister, has the wind in his sails and has pledged to change Europe’s focus towards growth and job creation after years of fiscal austerity in response to the euro zone’s debt crisis.

A French official said President Francois Hollande would back Renzi’s call for more pro-growth policies and tell fellow EU leaders that Europe had reached “the alarm level”. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel – the one who really counts – is talking about Europe’s people not caring about treaty change but job security and prosperity.

Mixed results for right in early voting

The British and Dutch got EU elections underway yesterday and gave only mixed support to the rise of the right.

An exit poll from the Netherlands showed the anti-Islam, Eurosceptic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders’ – which plans to forge an alliance with France’s far-right National Front – had fallen well short of its goal of topping the poll and may even have slumped into fourth place. That would give it three out of the 26 Dutch seats in the EU assembly, down from four in the last elections held in 2009, when it came in second place.

Britain’s anti-EU UKIP seems to be doing much better. There were no indications of how the EU parliamentary vote had gone in Britain, we’ll have to wait for Sunday for that, but parallel local government election results showed a surge in support for the party.
With those results still coming in, Nigel Farage’s party – many call it a one-man band – had secured a net gain of 90 local council seats and was winning well over 20 percent of the vote, mainly at the expense of the ruling Conservatives.

PMIs next signpost for ECB

Following a mixed bag of euro zone GDP data last week which showed Germany charging on and Spain holding its own but France stagnating and Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands slipping back into contraction, flash PMI surveys for the euro zone, Germany and France certainly have the power to jolt the markets today.

As things stand, there seems little to dissuade the European Central Bank from loosening policy next month. Five senior sources told us it was  preparing a package of policy options for its early June meeting, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidman speaks later. He told a German newspaper it was not yet certain that action would be taken in June. The three PMI readings are not expected to move much from April with the French numbers lagging those of the euro zone and Germany.

Putin desperately seeking gas deal

Ukraine seems to be in something of a holding pattern before Sunday’s election though the question of how those polls can be securely conducted in parts of the country where pro-Russian rebels want to secede remains a very live one.

We reported yesterday from Donetsk where officials working to prepare for the May 25 presidential poll described intimidation and threats from separatists which prompted them to shut down their office. The interior minister in Kiev has said it would be impossible to hold “normal elections” in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which are home to nearly 25 percent of the electorate.

Moscow said yesterday that President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian forces near Ukraine’s eastern border back to their bases, though NATO and the United States said they saw no sign of a pullback.

Why EU elections can matter

Some interesting action over the weekend: in a foretaste of this week’s EU elections, Greece’s leftist, anti-bailout Syriza party performed strongly in the first round of local elections on Sunday, capitalizing on voter anger at ongoing government austerity policies.

If it did even better in the EU polls it could threaten the ruling coalition and tip Greece back into turmoil just as there are signs that it has turned the corner.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney sounded dramatically more alarmed about Britain’s housing market, saying it posed the biggest risk to the economy and harboured deep structural problems.

Smoke signals from the Bank of England

Given the silence that attends Bank of England policy meetings which result in no change of course, today’s quarterly inflation report is the main chance to hear the latest thinking. Governor Mark Carney will talk to the media for an hour or so after its release.

The ongoing strength of economic data means the odds of a first interest rate rise this year are narrowing and one could certainly come before May 2015 elections, an unwelcome prospect for the government.

The main imponderable is how much spare capacity there is in the economy, which would allow further growth without feeding inflation pressures. There are differing views on that with no one quite sure how much activity was permanently destroyed by the financial crisis.

Russian sanctions … and France

After the EU widened its sanctions to include Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, the commander of Russian paratroopers and two Crimean energy firms, Ukrainian prime minister Yatseniuk is in Brussels today for talks. The EU is looking to shore up the situation to allow national elections to take place on May 25 and, along with Washington, has set any disruption of that vote as a red line.

Vladimir Putin, perhaps fearing significantly tougher sanctions, has belatedly given rhetorical support to the election. Whether it can legitimately take place given the chaos in parts of the country remains an open question.

The latest additions bring to 61 the number of Russians and Ukrainians the EU has slapped with asset freezes and visa bans and for the first time it has targeted companies after foreign ministers agreed to broaden the scope of sanctions. However, only broader trade and financial sanctions would really bite and on that, Washington is much keener than Europe which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs.

Secession vote looms

 

Despite Vladimir Putin’s apparent attempt at rapprochement, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine insist their Sunday referendum on secession will take place, a move which could lead to civil war.

More signs of concern from Washington last night with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to press Kiev to begin “direct, equitable dialogue” with its restive regions. In turn, Ukraine’s acting president and prime minister proposed a “round table” drawing in political forces and civil groups from all regions with international mediators helping out.

Putin’s motives are, as usual, opaque though it could be he hopes to avoid a third round of western sanctions – which would have to be much tougher – by calling on the separatists to suspend their vote on independence.