While the EU agrees that it needs a banking union, sorting out the details is somewhat tricky. Despite slow progress at the Cyprus summit, a common banking supervisory by January 2013 seems increasingly unlikely.
In a long and drawn-out night session at the EU summit at the end of June, the 27 heads of state and government of the European Union agreed to establish a banking union. The first step was to be the establishment of a supranational regulator to supervise eurozone banks by January 2013. Back in June the deal was summed up in just a few sentences – now, the EU’s finance ministers were faced with sorting out the tricky details.
“One of the weaknesses that we see in the eurozone is the spiral between banks that need to be rescued, and the growing sovereign debt,” Guntram Wolff from the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank told Deutsche Welle. In Ireland and Spain for instance, governments had to take on massive debts to rescue their country’s struggling banks.
“The idea behind a banking union is to break up this dependency,” Wolff explained. “The goal is to avoid that banks’ debts can turn into sovereign debts and that potentially the country itself can go bankrupt.”
Common supervision only a first step
The European Commission has now made a concrete proposal on how to go ahead. The banking union is to consist of a common supervisory board, a risk and crisis management, a common guarantee fund for savings deposits and fund for winding down ailing banks.
Risks incurred in the bank rescue process are to be shared on the European level. At the end of the process, even the guarantee of savings deposits would be standardized and organized on the EU level. In an extreme scenario, this would mean that Germans would be liable for Greek banks, and that Greeks in turn could be liable for ailing banks in Germany.
But joint liability won’t happen over night: several eurozone members don’t even have their own deposit guarantee funds yet – and EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier stressed that this would be necessary precondition before any kind of joint liability could be established.
In Nicosia, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was far from enthusiastic about any form of common liability. He urged not to move too fast and warned of creating expectations that cannot be met.
Above all, he cautioned about the establishment of a common supervision of the more than 6000 banks operating in the 17 eurozone countries. Warning the job should be done properly rather than hastily, he said he didn’t believe a common supervision could be up and running by January 1, 2013. “We all agreed that announcing a fixed date is not a good idea if you’re not sure whether you can actually stick to it.”
In Cyprus, Barnier admitted that it was best to move in small steps but defended the plan’s timeline as “ambitious, demanding, realistic and necessary.” He added though that not every banks would be affected immediately, suggesting that only by 2014 all banks would effectively be under joint supervision.
But there’s not even agreement as to whether really all banks need to be under supranational supervision. Germany’s Schäuble for instance remains convinced that only a part of the country’s financial institutions should be supervised centrally, while the larger number of Germany’s small savings banks and mutual savings and loans institutions should remain under national supervision.