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EU cites progress on 'Banking Union', need more talks

Update: December, 11/2013 - 11:59

BRUSSELS – EU finance ministers agreed on Wednesday to meet again next week to finalise details of a "Banking Union" meant to prevent failing banks from ever again wrecking the economy.

Following more than 14 hours of talks, the ministers cited some progress but not enough, with agreement only on the general principles on one of the bloc's most ambitious projects.

"We did not finish. We agreed to reconvene next week," said Lithuanian Finance Minister Rimantas Sadzius who chaired the talks.

"We have come a long way," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said.

All countries now accept the principle that if banks "get into difficulty, then it will not be the taxpayer but the investors and creditors that bear the costs," Schaeuble said.

But as to how to put that into practice, all member states "still need to check a few things so that we can make the final political accord ... next week," he said.

Sadzius said ministers would gather again on December 18, on the eve of a two-day EU leaders summit supposed to sign off on the plan which will then go to the European Parliament.

Ministers hope the Banking Union will prevent any repeat of failing banks driving governments into international bailouts.

Tuesday's talks focused on a so-called Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) which would step in to close a bank at risk before it could do too much damage to the wider economy.

The SRM would have a pot of cash at its disposal – funded eventually by the banks themselves – to cover the cost involved so the taxpayer does not have to pick up the bill.

The SRM would follow an already agreed Single Supervisory Mechanism which the European Central Bank will run to oversee the top 130 or so eurozone banks directly, and thousands more indirectly via national authorities.

95 per cent of the way there

While all agree, as Schaeuble stated, on the principle, the political issues are fraught since the new system would effectively hand control of national banks to the EU.

This is a major sticking point, not least for EU powerhouse Germany and other member states anxious to ensure maximum authority over their own banking systems.

The European Commission, backed by France, wants the SRM to have the power to shut down any of the eurozone's 6,000 banks if they get into difficulties.

However, Germany believes the mechanism should have jurisdiction only over the 130 top banks under ECB supervision.

A draft document on the working of the SRM showed that Berlin's preferred option appeared to have won the day.

More differences arose over who controls the SRM.

The Commission, the EU's executive arm, wants the final say over whether and how a failing bank is wound up but Germany believes member states should have that right.

According to the draft document, an SRM board would take the initial decision to wind up a bank, with the Commission having a right of review within a set time limit.

If the Commission objects, the issue would go to the 28 member states to intervene – but if it did not then the board decision would stand, the draft text proposes.

Finally, there remains discord over whether the fund – which the Commission wants to total some 55 billion euros (US$76 billion) – should be a centralised European pot or come under control of the member states.

The draft document detailed a transition arrangement, based first on separate national resolution funds which, over a period of 10 years,would gradually merge into a pan-European single pot to back the SRM.

"We have made great progress ... we are 95 per cent of the way there," said French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.

At next week's meeting, ministers "will go over the technical details and harmonise our positions," Moscovici said. AFP

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