Monday, 23 April 2012

Sharon Bowles MEP on the future of the eurozone

A few days ago I was in Strasbourg as part of a scheme of trips to the European Parliament for various political bloggers. While I was there I was fortunate enough to be able to interview six Lib Dem MEPs - who were generous enough to give up time to talk to me.

Finding an MEPs office is not an easy task in Strasbourg. From the press room you must go down a corridor, down another corridor, up a lift, down a corridor, across a bridge, into a rabbit warren of yet more corridors and offices, up another lift and then back into the rabbit warren again before you finally find the correct numbered room. Nevertheless, I manage it, getting lost only a few times, and find myself outside Sharon Bowles' office.

Sharon Bowles MEP is a busy woman. She is the chair of the EU's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee (ECON) - making her one of the most influential people in the world when it comes to financial matters. In fact, people in the markets are more likely to pay attention to what Sharon Bowles says than to George Osborne.

As Sharon explains to me, ECON covers four major areas. "The entire financial services area, so all the rules concerning markets, banks, and so forth," Sharon tells me, are under the control of her committee. It also has oversight over the European Central Bank (ECB), which sets interest rates for the eurozone, to provide public accountability and ECON also has new powers over economic surveillance - what Sharon says she dubs as "governments behaving badly".

Sharon also tells me that there's been a lot of work on this since the eurozone crisis and says that "it's not as difficult and detailed as all of the financial stuff but its obviously very highly political when you start trying to make countries coordinate their budgets with each other for better effect and mandate that their budgets should be balanced."

ECON also has influence on tax where it's currently working on the proposed Financial Transaction Tax on banks and also oversees the EU Commission on competition matters where ECON has joint decision powers on whether to bring damages against corporations breaching competition law.

As a result of the financial crisis all these areas are on overtime, Sharon tells me - with "a whole swathe" of regulation on markets and banks coming in.

I take the opportunity to ask Sharon about the eurozone debt crisis and how bad it actually is.

"It's very bad, in reality, because it's something that has been brewing a long time.There are various causes of it, I mean there were flaws in the original way in which the eurozone was designed - flaws which the UK pointed out at the time - there have been countries that haven't necessarily been sensible with their budgets and their spending, but a lot of it was tipped over the edge by the financial crisis.

"It is very serious, it's not something that's ever going to be fixed in a few months. I mean, the markets tend to have a cycle of a few months with the latest round of bailouts or rescue mechanism and then they get happy and they start selling their assets that they want to get rid of, that the clever people tend to gain and the less clever people tend to lose - but it's a long haul to get the debt levels back down to what they should be and to get everyone on to balanced budgets.

"And I, realistically, don't think they're necessarily going to be able to do it without going to having a Eurobond whre there is a pooled sovereign bond issuance you can put various conditions around that so you're not, in a sense, giving free money to people who are wantonly spending - you can have some conditionality around it - but I think that that's the only long term way we're going to get out of it.

"And slowly we're moving towards it, as the bailout mechanisms are a kind of eurobond if you look at it that way, the intervention by the European Central Bank could indeed be modified into a kind of bond. It's something that I might - I just launched it into the arena that that's a possibility - today, or last night and Barroso [President of the EU Commision] sort of looks at me. He keeps telling me 'Have you given Olli Rehn [EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs] all your ideas', you know.

"So it is very serious - in just the way that the UK deficit is serious and we've got to pay that down. But it's harder of course because they've got to juggle with more factors."

Blimey. I've heard about a Eurobond - which would essentially be government debt bonds backed by all the coutnries in the EU - as a possible solution to the sovereign debt crisis before but this is the first time I've ever heard it from someone who is often described as one of the best economic minds in Europe.

Of course, the idea of a Eurobond is a contentious issue, not least among the richer eurozone countries (especially Germany) who don't want to have to subsidise the borrowing costs of poorer countries. I ask Sharon whether she thinks the various national governments will actually be able to agree on Eurobonds before it's too late.

"Well, there are always dangers in these things. I mean the big question is where is Germany going to be on this. And, you could say that Germany realises that, at least I think at the highest political levels, that it is almost in a position that it is too big for Europe and too small for the world. But it actually needs to be in Europe, it needs the single market. It can't, the benefits that it has, its exporting engine are only enabled because of the single market. So ultimately, to put it bluntly, they have to pay to save the thing that enables them to be profitable.

"And so they will have to do it. There will come a moment - I mean this is partly why I've been looking at long term refinancing operations of the European Central Bank, in that everyone's already talking about how are you ever going to be able to get that money back out of the banks, but a lot of banks at the same time, because they're scared to put money anywhere else and are going and depositing it back with central banks. It would be very simple just to issue that as, for the ECB to do one year sovereign bills, or something, that would fund the debt of the eurozone and get into it through that kind of mechanism.

"But something's got to give. I mean there are long term options, there are short term options - they're not necessarily incompatible. It's just a question of, it does seem to me that we have to get to a precipice and be half way to falling over before action is taken. Simply because it tends to take that long for individuals in countries to realise what the scenario is. I mean think, in the UK, people don't think there should be any sense, while w're in debt, in helping to rescue others. But actually there's always an element of self-help in it - that if you don't keep the single market going, and if you don't have healthy countries around you, then you can't be healthy as well."

We move onto discussing some of the financial regulation ideas that she and ECON are pushing. An indication of the powers of ECON in this ares comes when we discuss plans politicians are proposing in the UK at the moment - such as ringfencing investment and retail arms of banks, or breaking up the banks completely. Sharon says they "may not be allowed to do, dependent upon how the legislation we do at the moment... [is] transposed into European law." Indeed, as Sharon goes onto explain, ECON makes "all the rules which the FSA [the Financial Services Authority], or their successors, and the Bank of England have to put into place and supervise."

Sharon's keen to emphasise that this isn't anything new but that "the detail with which they're being done, and the level of harmonisation has become much greater" due to the cross border implications of the financial crisis.

And with that Sharon has to go off to the parliament chamber to vote with barely enough time for me to thank her for doing the interview. As I said before, she's a very busy woman.

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