The leaders of France and Germany agreed a master plan on Monday for imposing budget discipline across the euro zone, saying the EU treaty will need to be changed in the search for a sweeping solution to its debt crisis.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel said their proposal included automatic penalties for governments which fail to keep their deficits under control, and an early launch of a permanent bailout fund for euro states in distress.
Italy, the biggest euro zone nation in trouble, offered a glimmer of hope that the bloc could halt a crisis which is threatening the common currency. Its borrowing costs tumbled after the technocrat government announced a austerity program.
“What we want with the chancellor is to tell the world that in Europe the rule is that we pay back our debts, reduce our deficits, restore growth,” Mr. Sarkozy told a joint news conference after about two hours of talks in Paris.
“This package shows that we are absolutely determined to keep the euro as a stable currency and as an important contributor to European stability,” said Ms. Merkel.
Confidence that European leaders will come up with a credible plan to lead the region out of its debt crisis at this week’s summit lifted world stocks on Monday, with European shares hitting a five-week high.
Investors and policy makers hope a summit deal on closer euro zone integration combined with strict deficit reduction measures by heavily indebted states will induce the European Central Bank to act decisively to stop contagion on bond markets.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy had already both wanted a system of more coercive discipline for euro zone governments which fail to keep down their budgets deficits.
But they had been under unprecedented pressure to see eye to eye in a crisis that has split them on issues such as the role of the European Central Bank in lending to troubled states and on whether the bloc should issue joint euro bonds.
Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Merkel said they would send off their plan on Wednesday, in time for a make-or-break European Union summit on Friday, and made clear their determination to drive through an EU treaty change despite objections from some member states.
If countries such as euro outsider Britain blocked a treaty change at 27, the euro zone would proceed with an agreement among its 17 members open to all who wanted to join, they said.
Mr. Sarkozy said the economic policy mistakes which led to the euro zone crisis must never happen again, accepting the weight of expectation that France and Germany – the euro zone’s two biggest economies – carried to find a solution.
“In this extremely worrying period and serious crisis, France believes that the alliance and understanding with Germany are of strategic importance,” he said. “Risking a disagreement would be risking the euro zone exploding.”
OPEN TO CHANGES
Several governments, notably Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, oppose treaty change for domestic political reasons and fear they would not win public backing in referendums.
The revised treaty would permit automatic sanctions against states that breach an existing deficit limit of no more than 3 per cent of total economic output, unless a supermajority of states voted against the penalty.
That would reverse the current system where a majority of states must vote to launch disciplinary procedure.
It would also enshrine a budget-balancing rule in national constitutions across the euro zone, although they gave no detail of the proposed wording.
In deference to French concerns about sovereignty, they agreed the European Court of Justice could rule on whether euro zone states had implemented the fiscal rule properly in national law, but would not be able to reject national budgets.
Ms. Merkel appeared to have prevailed in her opposition to the issuing of bonds in theory guaranteed jointly by all euro zone countries, but in practice by the bloc’s strongest member, Germany. “We reject the idea of euro bonds,” she said.
Mr. Sarkozy rallied behind her, saying it would be absurd for France and Germany to cover the debts of countries on whose debt issuance they had no control.
In return, Ms. Merkel gave ground on the rules of a future permanent rescue fund for the euro zone, the European Stability Mechanism, which have been cited as a deterrent to investors.
Germany had insisted that explicit clauses be included in all bonds issued from mid-2013 stipulating that private bondholders may have to share the burden of any future bailout of a euro zone state.
Instead, the rules will say the ESM will respect standard International Monetary Fund principles and procedures, and that the write-down taken by Greek bond holders is a unique case.
NO ITALIAN COLLAPSE
One of the most startling market moves was on Italian bonds as Prime Minister Mario Monti declared that his €30-billion austerity plan had saved his nation from economic disaster.
“Without this package, we think that Italy would have collapsed, that Italy would go into a situation similar to that of Greece,” Mr. Monti told the news conference.
Italy’s technocrat cabinet approved the mix of tax rises, pension reforms and incentives to boost growth in a three-hour meeting on Sunday, opening one of the most crucial weeks since the launch of the euro more than a decade ago.
Markets reacted enthusiastically, with the yield on Italian two-year bonds plunging 85 basis points to 5.78 per cent. This was far below the yields of over 7 per cent last month – levels at which Greece, Ireland and Portugal had to take international bailouts.
But unions immediately called a strike to protest against the “Save Italy” package, while Mr. Monti urged the ECB to play its part in the wider drive to restore investors’ faith in euro countries’ ability to repay their debts.
Ireland imposed further spending cuts in an austere budget on Monday, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of next year’s €3.8-billion fiscal adjustment.
Speaking before Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy announced their plan, Mr. Monti said better budget enforcement, an increase in firepower for the EFSF bailout fund and involvement of the International Monetary Fund would persuade the ECB to move.
“I believe this combination of these factors, including what Italy, my government, did on Sunday, will induce the ECB to reassess, in full independence, their future policies.”
Top ECB policy makers have been reluctant to buy up debt from distressed euro zone states, as this would take the pressure off governments to get their financial houses in order.
But ECB chief Mario Draghi has signalled that a “fiscal compact” produced by the euro zone governments could nudge the bank to act more decisively on the crisis.
François Hollande, Mr. Sarkozy’s socialist challenger in next year’s French presidential election, spoke out in favour of euro zone bonds in an address to Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party congress in Berlin on Monday.
In contrast to criticism of Germany from leftists in his party in the last week, Mr. Hollande called for a strong alliance between Paris and Berlin to build a post-conservative era in which austerity was not the only rule.