EU Raises Stakes in Crisis with New Plan
The European Union hopes to push its member states to take firmer action on the debt crisis when it presents Wednesday a broad new plan to fight market turmoil, from strengthening weak banks to lowering Greece's debt burden.
The plan is the boldest attempt yet to stem the crisis, which has linked the fortunes of highly indebted states like Greece, Ireland and Portugal with those of the banks that own those countries' bonds.
However, the proposals to be unveiled by European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso in the afternoon will face resistance among the bloc's 27 members, many of whom have been wary of putting up more money to shore up struggling governments and banks.
Officials say that the Commission, the EU's executive, sees this as the final opportunity to get a grip on the debt crisis, which has already forced three states into multibillion euro (dollar) bailouts and now threatens to push the world economy into a second recession.
In the proposals, which were still subject to heated discussions in the Commission Wednesday morning, Barroso will set out a coordinated plan to increase European banks' capital by lifting the amount of low-risk assets they have to hold to absorb losses on other investments. He will also propose ways to maximize the impact of the region's bailout fund new powers, so it can help weak governments strengthen their banks and keep the crisis from engulfing Italy and Spain.
The hope is that EU leaders, who are still divided on how to deal with the crisis, will embrace the proposals at their summit on Oct. 23.
"This crisis started with the financial crisis (of 2008). Three years later we are still facing doubts about the capacity of the banks to cope with, for instance, their exposure to sovereign risk," Amadeu Altafaj Tardio, spokesman for Olli Rehn, one of the three commissioners who drafted the proposals with Barroso, told AP Television News on Wednesday.
Ahead of the plan's announcement, banking shares across Europe rallied hard. France's Societe Generale, which is heavily exposed to Greek debt, saw its stock rise 5 percent. Alpha Bank in Athens was up over 16 percent.
Until now, the Commission has worked mostly behind the scenes ahead of crucial summits, presenting states with different technical options that were not publicly discussed before the meetings. By unveiling the plans in front of the European Parliament 11 days before the summit, the Commission hopes to pile more pressure on national governments to take on radical options.
But this more open approach is risky at a time when many euro-skeptic parties in financially strong states are already campaigning against further aid to the region's stragglers. The proposals come a day after Slovakia's parliament voted down a previously agreed expansion of the eurozone's bailout fund.
Despite the "no" vote by the Slovak parliament, which had been expected for some time, stock markets around the world and the euro have rallied over the past week amid expectations for a new EU crisis strategy. If European leaders fail to agree on such a new plan, markets sentiment could quickly turn sour again.
Central to the eurozone's problems is Greece, which has a debt load that would reach around 180 percent of economic output next year if it doesn't try to impose steeper losses on its bondholders.
Several rich states, including the EU's biggest economy, Germany, are already pushing for cuts on bond repayments much steeper than the 21 percent tentatively agreed with banks in July.
But before such a harsh restructuring of Greek debt can be implemented, the eurozone needs to strengthen its defenses.
As part of that, banks will be expected to increase their capital buffers, forcing them to build up risk-free assets that can absorb losses on bond investments. EU finance ministers last week asked the European Banking Authority to examine what kind of capital buffers would be adequate during the current market turmoil.
The Commission has warned that many banks are finding it harder to get short-term loans from each other amid fears over their financial health, risking to create a credit squeeze similar to the one triggered by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008.
The Commission will also propose a more creative use of the region's bailout fund, the euro440 billion ($600 billion) European Financial Stability Facility. The option that has gained the most traction so far would be to allow the EFSF to act as an insurer for bond issues from struggling countries like Italy and Spain.
Under such a scheme, the rest of the eurozone, via the EFSF, would promise investors to redeem them for part of any potential losses, making the bonds a much safer investment.