The French president made some unusually undiplomatic comments this week gloating over his Agriculture Minister, Michel Barnier, being appointed as European Commissioner for the internal market. That position is one of the most important in the EU, especially as the world recovers from the shock of the economic crisis.
He boldly and defiantly blamed the economic collapse on the “free-wheeling Anglo-Saxon” (aka British and American) economic model, saying, “I want the world to see the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism." He said the fact that a Frenchman had been appointed, while the EU had refused to even consider a Brit for the position - despite Gordon Brown’s pleading - reflected how discredited the Anglo-Saxon model has become. The bravado was an indication that Sarko intends to push Barnier hard to create a pan-EU financial regulator based on the continental European economic model that would have power over the City of London (London’s financial centre).
It was a remark seemingly calculated to elicit the most fury possible across the channel, and boy did it work. UK Chancellor Alistair Darling almost immediately put pen to paper to fire back in an editorial in the Times, saying:
"National supervisors, such as the FSA, must remain responsible for supervising individual companies…The reality is the real competition to Europe's financial centres comes from outside our borders. And that London, whether others like it or not, is New York's only rival as a truly global financial centre."Darling signalled that he would go into Wednesday’s meeting of European finance ministers with an uncompromising stance against a pan-EU regulator that could supersede the British authorities. And thus the first Franco-British battle for economic reform commenced.
The first skirmish
The European Commission has drawn up plans for three new supervisory authorities to oversee banks, insurers and investment firms. In addition a separate body, the European Systemic Risk Board, would oversee the wider stability of the European financial system as a whole. Though the national regulators would be involved with it, it would be led by the European Central Bank. This last part would be highly controversial in Britain since it does not use the Euro and is currently not beholden to the bank in any way.
Yesterday’s meeting appears to have been a draw. Both Germany and France went in pushing hard for powerful EU supervisory bodies, but by all accounts Darling was equally fierce in his opposition to them. French finance minister Christine Legarde came out saying they had found a compromise, adding “Not everyone was on the same wavelength.”
Darling came out of the meeting insisting he had negotiated a guarantee that the EU regulator could not supersede national regulators, and it could not force states to pay up for taxpayer bailouts.
But in essence both his guarantees and Legarde’s calming words are premature. The ministers only agreed on the most general of outlines for the plan yesterday, and much still has to be worked out. The thought from some in parliament is that the big ‘macroeconomic’ authority and three ‘microeconomic’ groups are being split up as a purposeful distraction. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberals in the parliament who favours a strong authority, indicated after the meeting that the parliament will attempt to bypass this “trick” by voting on both bodies as one. He said after the meeting:
"This "forced agreement" is difficult to understand. Member States are repeatedly saying they want a single market for financial services, but now that the time has come to agree on the basic principle of creating supra-national supervisory authorities, some of them appear totally reluctant". Moreover, by separating micro-prudential supervision from the macro-prudential one, Council tries to impose its own views and its own agenda. But the European Parliament as co-legislator will play its full role and has already decided to consider the proposals on micro and macro prudential supervision as a whole."What comes out of this is anybody’s guess. A column in today’s Wall Street Journal suggested that the Square Mile was overreacting and taking Sarko’s bait, and the paper seems confident that in the end the city will not be regulated from Brussels. But if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t be putting my money on Britain winning this fight.
The UK already has dimished influence in Brussels because of its lack of engagement. And with a weakened government that will be preoccupied in the coming months with an election it is sure to lose, I don’t see them as being a very difficult foe to vanquish.
This is a shame really. As badly as financial reform is needed, Darling is correct to say that London is the leading financial centre of Europe and should have a significant say in new regulatory structures, regardless of the sins the city and its hedge funds have committed in the past to get us into this mess. One should keep in mind that Merkel and Sarko’s push for a strong EU financial regulator with power over the city is not entirely altruistic. Part of their motivation is a desire to scale down the city’s prominence in the European financial sector and give more power to Frankfurt and La Defense.
But as some commentators have pointed out, if the EU overegulates without some reform from its trading partners, there is a risk that financial services companies will flee Europe altogether. Rather than moving from Britain to France and Germany, they could be more likely to high tail it over to Switzerland.
And speaking of Switzerland, I’m about to get on a plane to fly there. My dad is having a belated Thanksgiving dinner. I’m wondering if the minaret ban vote will come up during the dinner conversation with his Swiss colleagues. It could be an interesting night!