Did the German court do Europe a favour?
Working Papers from Bruegel
Contributions from, and collaboration with, Will Levine of Union Square Group Capital have greatly enriched this paper. For generous comments, the author is grateful to Kevin Cardiff, Paul de Grauwe, Aerdt Houben, Dan Kelemen, Rosa Lastra, Karl Whelan, Jeromin Zettelmeyer, and especially to Peter Lindseth and Guntram Wolff.The European Central Bank’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme was a politically-pragmatic tool to diffuse the euro-area crisis. But it did not deal with the fundamental incompleteness of the European monetary union. As such, it blurred the boundary between monetary and fiscal policy. The fuzziness of this boundary helped in the short-term but pushed political and economic risks to the future. Unless a credible commitment to enforcing losses on private creditors is instituted, these conundrums will persist. The German Federal Constitutional Court has helped by insisting that such a dialogue be conducted in order to achieve a more durable political and economic solution. A study of the European Union Court of Justice’s Pringle decision (Thomas Pringle v Government of Ireland, Ireland and The Attorney General, Case C-370/12, ECJ, 27 November 2012) suggests that the ECJ will also not rubber-stamp the OMT – and, if it does, the legal victory will not resolve the fundamental dilemmas.Working paper 2014/09As the risk premia on Spanish and Italian bonds soared in the summer of 2012, Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, promised on 26 July to do “whatever it takes” to restore confidence in the euro area (Draghi, 2012a). In successive announcements in August and September, the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme was rolled out. Governments benefiting from the programme would be required to step up their fiscal discipline; in return, the ECB would buy their bonds in unlimited quantities to place a ceiling on their interest rates. Markets calmed down, the risks spreads began a steady fall, the lingering crisis abated and a nascent recovery began. Draghi (2013) himself later described the programme as “probably the most successful monetary policy measure undertaken in recent time”.On 14 January 2014, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court (the German Court) made news. It determined that OMT is prima facie incompatible with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the legal basis for the European Union. However, before delivering its final judgment, the German Court chose – for the first time – to seek the opinion of the European Court of Justice (the ECJ). The eventual resolution of the questions raised will have wide-ranging implications for the economics and politics of the euro, and for European integration.ECB action via the OMT was needed because the fiscal options to deal with the crisis had been narrowed down to austerity, which was not paying dividends. European policymakers had determined that they would not – other than in exceptional circumstances – allow euro-area sovereigns to default on their debt to private creditors, although the option of such default was implied in the Treaty’s so-called 'no bailout' clauses (Articles 123 and 125). There was, moreover, no political will to compromise national interests in a fiscal union with a sizeable pool of budgetary resources. That placed the entire burden on austerity. While budget trimming would eventually reduce public debt-to-GDP ratios to acceptable levels, markets were losing confidence.The OMT was politically attractive. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, lent it her support even though the Bundesbank President, Jens Weidmann, steadfastly opposed it. For Merkel, who had bought into the ECB’s opposition to imposing losses on private creditors, the OMT was the only way to distance her actions in support of Europe from a sceptical German public.The heart of the German Court’s case is that the OMT could spread the losses across governments in the euro area. It thus creates a de-facto fiscal union, which is contrary to the political contract. The TFEU authorises a common currency shared among European Union’s member states but consciously leaves fiscal sovereignty and responsibility at the national level since the member states have remained unwilling to pay for the mistakes of other member states. The TFEU achieves economic consistency by permitting – arguably encouraging – that the burden of these mistakes be shared by the sovereign’s private creditors. But this outlet was closed by a policy decision.To the supporters of the OMT, the activist German Court is endangering a fragile economic and financial calm, while overstating the limits set by the political contract.The ECB’s position is that the OMT was required mainly to correct distortions in financial markets, which were pricing in unwarranted fears of euro-area exits by stressed countries. Since this market fear blunted the ECB’s ability to conduct monetary policy, the OMT was designed to remove the threat of exit and, thereby, improve liquidity to countries under stress.
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