MacroScope

Juncker begins to fill in the gaps

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European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker will hold talks with the various political groupings in the European Parliament as he seeks to develop policy positions. Most interesting would be indications about which way he is bending in the growth versus austerity debate.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, resurgent after a strong performance in May’s EU elections, is pressing for a focus on measures to get the euro zone economy firing and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk. But any leeway will be within the existing debt rules, not by writing new ones.

We know from the history of the euro debt crisis that Berlin can only move so far, so fast and only last week it proudly proclaimed it would not be a net borrower of zero next year, for the first time in over 45 years. Having said that it has just passed into law a generous national minimum wage and its labour costs are rising, so there is some rebalancing going on.

Euro zone finance ministers met in Brussels late yesterday and affirmed that EU countries can get more time to cut budget gaps provided they deliver reforms with a clear long-term impact. A similar pledge was made by EU leaders at a summit last month.

Juncker is first and foremost a dealmaker so – contrary to his popular billing as the wrong man at the wrong time – he could bring his skills to bear to get everyone on the same page.

Renzi and Schaeuble: Compare and contrast

renzi2.jpgItalian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will spell out to the European Parliament his priorities for Italy’s six-month tenure of the EU presidency.
Emboldened by a strong showing in May’s EU elections, Renzi is pressing for a focus on growth rather than austerity and has even managed to get Germany to talk the talk.

At an EU summit last week, leaders accepted the need to allow member states extra time to consolidate their budgets as long as they pressed ahead with economic reforms. They pledged to make “best use” of the flexibility built into the bloc’s fiscal rule book – not, you will notice, countenancing any change in the rules.

As always in the EU, this will stand or fall on the attitude in Germany. We could get an early reading on that when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble presents 2015-2018 budget plans. Berlin plans to refrain from any net new borrowing from 2015 for the first time since 1969 and will spend projected higher tax revenues on education and infrastructure.

Signs of European dash for growth

The ripples of EU election results are being felt, no more so than in France where the National Front topped the poll.

The day after the results, Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised further tax cuts for French households. The government is already committed to a 30 billion euros cut in labour taxes to help business but insists all this can be done while meeting its EU deficit commitments.

Brussels has already given Paris an extra two years to get its deficit down to three percent of GDP. Today, the European Commission will produce updated country recommendations.

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.

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

Hollande’s search for an elusive winning formula

After a local election drubbing, French President Francois Hollande duly sacked his prime minister last night and tempered his economic reform drive, vowing to focus more on growth and “social justice”. A fuller cabinet reshuffle is expected today.

Interior minister Manuel Valls, anything but a left-wing firebrand whose appointment could stir unrest on the left of the ruling Socialist party, takes the premiership with a mandate to pursue cuts in labour charges for business but also tax cuts to boost consumer spending and employment.

Hollande said France would still cut public spending to pay for a 30 billion euro reduction in labour charges on business, part of a “responsibility pact” with employers he launched in January. But he said Sunday’s elections also showed the need for a “solidarity pact” offering workers tax cuts and assurances on welfare, youth training and education.

IMF stumps up for Ukraine

The International Monetary Fund has announced a $14-18 billion bailout of Ukraine with the aim of luring in a total of $27 billion from the international community over the next two years.

Ukrainian officials say they need money to start flowing in April. The U.S., EU and others in the G7 would row in behind an IMF package, helping Ukraine meet its debt obligations and begin the process of rebuilding. In total, Kiev has talked about needing $35 billion over two years so they are pretty close.

A comprehensive slate of economic, energy and financial reforms have been attached and the Fund appears to be content that whatever hue of government is in charge after May elections will adhere to the programme.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Fundraising for Kiev

If the hastily drawn up timetable is adhered to an interim Ukrainian government will be formed today. Whatever the line-up, it is likely to repeat its urgent call for aid.

The West, led by the EU, is trying to drum up support – Brussels has already talked with Japan, China, Canada, Turkey and the United States on possible help — but the signals are that big money will only flow after May 25 elections when a permanent government is in place. Can it wait that long? The IMF adds that conditions it imposed on a previous loan offer would still apply, strings that it would be tough for any government in Kiev to meet.

Russia’s next step is the great unknown question but it seems safe to presume that the $12 billion outstanding from its $15 billion bailout of Ukraine will not be forthcoming, at least for now. There is also the prospect of the cut-price charged for its gas zooming back up.