The Super Mario Brothers – changing European politics

Last November saw the two Marios, Draghi and Monti, take on key positions within the Eurozone; Mario Draghi as President of the ECB succeeding Jean-Claude Trichet and Mario Monti succeeding the Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy. Both were appointed rather than being democratically elected but importantly both are hugely experienced within European politics and highly regarded and trusted by their peers. Both have moved fast to create change in their respective areas and together can be seen to be challenging the old power balance within the eurozone away from a Franco-German dominated politics towards a more truly European version.

November was also the period of greatest intensity in the sovereign debt crisis, when Italian 10 year government bond yields exceeded 7%, threatening a global banking and financial markets disaster. Mr Draghi acted decisively in December, cutting the ECB’s key interest rate and then announcing a new policy of Long Term Repurchase Operations, offering unlimited liquidity to Eurozone banks for a 3 year period at only 1%. This new policy has turned out to a marvellous euro-fudge. To German-minded Central Bankers a LTRO is not equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon policy of Quantitative Easing (aka printing money) that they loathe so vehemently, but is a liquidity-management tool which Central Bankers would be expected to deploy at times of crisis. The liquidity is merely lent to the banking system on the basis of collateral, it is not the creation or printing of new money. However (a) the scale of the operation, being unlimited, (b) the long time period involved, prior to this the ECB had never offered such facilities for longer than 1 year and then only in the darkest days of the 2008-09 crisis, and (c) the 1% rate, a zero premium to the official rate and thus creating no stigma for a weak bank being forced to pay higher rates for emergency liquidity, all meant that the short-term effects of this policy are remarkably similar to those of a policy of Quantitative Easing. The financial markets have certainly responded in such a fashion as the dangers of a eurozone banking crisis have receded.

Mr. Monti was effectively installed by Merkel and Sarkozy after they forced the departure of Berlusconi. Despite having enormous wealth and a population and an economy equivalent in size to France, the lack of growth in the Italian economy and its enormous level of national debt meant that it was seen as the weakest of the large European economies. Monti earned his stripes as the EU Competition Commissioner, taking on and defeating both Microsoft and Hewlett Packard in well-publicised battles over their monopoly powers. He has surprised many with the speed and ambition of the fiscal and economic changes he has forced through the Italian parliament, taking on many of the protected special interest groups which benefit from rigidities in the regulatory system. He is clearly aiming at delivering the significant structural reform to the Italian economy which is so badly needed and which Berlusconi failed to deliver.

Having gained credibility with his actions within Italy, Monti has used the fact that Merkel likes and listens to him to argue with Germany about its single-minded focus on austerity as the only tool to restoring the European economy. In recent weeks the tone of German thoughts on the European economy has changed towards the need for greater pro-growth policies. Italy now has a seat at the top table when these matters are discussed.

Sarkozy and France appear to be the losers in this power shift. Sarkozy was very quick to ensure that he maintained a French presence at the top of the IMF by getting Christine Lagarde to replace Dominique Strauss-Khan, but that has cost him a key voice within Europe, where she was well regarded but it has not really helped in terms of getting the IMF to be pro-Europe. It is noticeable how much quieter Sarkozy has been since Monti’s arrival at the top table. This may reflect his domestic political weakness – he faces re-election in May and with current polls suggesting he is set to lose, he has been forced to ask Merkel to campaign for him in France. The Franco-German axis in Europe which has dominated European politics for the last few years is breaking down as Germany is now the clear leader and then below are a newly-weakened France and a newly-strengthened Italy. A greater Southern Europe perspective is just beginning to have an effect on the way in which Europe is now being run.