Open Europe Blog

Negotiations on the shape and form of the eurozone’s permanent bailout scheme – the “European Stability Mechanism (ESM)” – are entering a crucial phase. The fund is meant to be up and running by mid-2013 and is likely to have €500bn available. Of this amount, between €80bn and €100bn will be up-front cash from member states – the rest will come in the form of guarantees.

People are naturally getting nervous about this arrangement, particularly in Germany. Sueddeutsche suggested the other day that German taxpayers will need to contribute between €18bn to €25bn to the scheme in paid up cash (in addition to the guarantees).

Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t too keen on discussing how much Germany might have to contribute in the end. “She doesn’t want to talk about this now”, a diplomat reportedly said.

We can see why. A direct €25bn liability on Germany’s books could increase the country’s borrowing costs and hamper efforts to consolidate its budget.

To avoid this, the German government is pushing only for countries without a triple A rating to contribute paid-up cash, as triple A countries – so says Merkel – are lending their good name to the cause, and that’s quite enough. But this, in turn, would increase the cash contributions from weaker eurozone members. This has raised alarm bells amongst weaker euro economies as well as a range of non-eurozone members.

Reuters yesterday quoted EU sources saying that eurozone members Estonia and Slovakia as well as Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have all criticised the plans. They argue that basing cash contributions to the ESM on a country’s proportion of the ECB’s paid-up capital is unfair. The countries have even threatened to block proposals for tougher EU-wide budget rules unless changes are made to the suggested ESM arrangement. One representative said,

“Unless there is a change to the ESM capital key we will block the agreement on the governance package once it returns from parliament and EU finance ministers have to approve it by unanimity.”

Also non-euro member Sweden has objected to the proposed capital key for the ESM.

Why do these countries feel so strongly about this issue. They’re not in the eurozone after all? Well, probably because they understand that, were they one day to join, they could be forced to cough up actual cash to save a Greece, Ireland or Portugal. Paid up cash is a far more serious liability than loan guarantees. Slovakia’s refusal to take part in the Greek bail-out gives a hint as to why these countries aren’t thrilled by the prospect of a permanent bail-out arrangement linked to the ECB’s capital key and credit status. In such an arrangement, smaller economies that haven’t really done anything wrong could end up with a pretty hefty bill.

On a related note, where is the UK in all of this? So far, the UK appears to have taken little interest in the structure and pay-in arrangement of the permanent bail-out mechanism. If this is because it doesn’t intend to ever join the euro, that’s one thing.

But if it’s because Britain thinks it has no stake in making sure that the new eurozone rules are fair and make economic sense – rather than facilitating even greater meltdowns down the road (a very real risk) – then the UK government is sadly mistaken.

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