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EU seeks to overcome banking disunion

Decision on common bank rules seen as the most important since launching the euro.

LISBON, Portugal — The protesters braving police batons and freezing temperatures in Kyiv’s Independence Square have been a timely reminder for jaded Westerners of the EuropeanUnion’s original ideals.

But while the Ukrainian demonstrators strive to defend their right to share the peace, democracy and free movement enshrined in the EU’s treaties, leaders of the Union’s 28 member nations gather for their year-end summit this week to discuss more arcane matters.

“Banking union now!” is unlikely to become a rallying cry that would ignite political passions.

For the presidents and prime ministers gathering in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, however, the complex package of “bank supervisory mechanisms” and “common resolution funds” on the table is crucial for preventing any repeat of crisis that’s bedeviled European economies for the past five years.

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“For the general public, this is perhaps the least sexy theme around,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta acknowledged last week.

“I defy any one to get people into the streets over banking union, but this is fundamentally important,” he told a conference in Rome. “If we had had a banking union, we could have avoided these bailout funds and states could have saved millions of euros.”

Some believe the rules to be thrashed out this week could be the EU’s most important financial decision since the 1992 agreement to launch the euro, the currency shared by 17 member countries.

The aim is to end the “doom-loop,” which has led indebted states and shaky banks to drag each other to the brink of bankruptcy with disastrous economic effects.

The worst cases have been in Ireland, where the government spent billions to rescue banks that had gambled and lost on a property bubble and other speculative investments; and Greece, whose soaring national debt undermined the banking system, sucking up credit and crippling business. Both countries were forced to accept bailouts from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

But it was fear that Spain‘s banks could lead the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy to an Irish-style meltdown that convinced EU leaders action was needed. Since the start of the crisis in 2007, almost $2 trillion in public funds has been used to prop up ailing banks.

The banking union is supposed to ensure European taxpayers won’t have to pay anymore.

The first stage was agreed last year: giving the European Central Bank powers to supervise the euro zone’s 130 largest banks to ensure they don’t get into trouble again.

This week, the leaders must fix a common mechanism for restructuring or shutting down failing banks — backed by a fund financed by bank levies to cover the costs; and a separate fund to guarantee the deposits of savers across the euro zone.

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It may sound simple, but details and differences between governments have taken 18 months to thrash out. After a year of negotiations, hopes are that EU finance ministers will be able to outline a deal on the eve of the summit that leaders can finalize by Friday.

German cold feet has been one of the main reasons for the delay.

The EU’s richest nation and biggest bailout contributor is keen to avoid further rescues. But Chancellor Angela Merkel is also worried Germany will be heavily committed to covering costs involved in the banking union.

Happy that EU supervisors will keep a close eye on risk-taking by banks in other countries, the Germans are also queasy about too many outside restrictions on their own leaders.

In particular, Berlin wants to avoid over-regulating local savings banks, which remain cherished backers of small business in Germany’s states, despite the enthusiasm with which some joined in the sub-prime speculative jamboree that triggered the 2007 finance crisis.

Largely as a result of German insistence, the compromise plan expected to emerge this week is packed with checks and balances that would maintain national responsibilities and controls, and exceptions for smaller institutions that are tailor-made for Germany’s state bank.

Among leading EU financial decision-makers, there are fears the complicated arrangements would make the banking union unwieldy, underfunded and unable to take the swift decisions needed to put a lid on banking crises.

“I am concerned that decision-making may become overly complex and financing arrangements may not be adequate,” European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said Monday. “It is not possible to have hundreds of people consulting each other about the viability of a bank.”

London’s Financial Times this week estimated the latest proposals would require up to 126 people for a decision to shut down a medium-sized cross-border bank. Some would have to vote multiple times on up to nine different committees, the paper reported.

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That hardly fits with the ECB’s demands that the winding down of any failing bank would need to be handled over a weekend to avoid market panic.

Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels, Draghi also expressed concern that individual euro zone members would be left to bear the prime responsibility for covering the costs of bank failures years after the adoption of the banking union plan.

The latest drafts contained provisions stipulated by Germany that euro zone-wide funding would be introduced only gradually over 10 years. Even then, the “Single Resolution Fund” — made up of levies from banks across the currency bloc — would be capped at 55 billion euros, or $76 billion.

“Responsibilities for supervision and resolution need to be aligned at the European level,” Draghi told the lawmakers. “We should not create a Single Resolution Mechanism that is single in name only.”

Many countries are asking for the Resolution Mechanism to be backed up by the 500 billion euro European Stability set up with public money to rescue countries in trouble. Germany opposes.

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Many worry those shortfalls could leave the EU vulnerable to a future banking crisis while continuing to hold back a return of economic confidence needed to help struggling southern European countries recover from the long recession.

“The draft agreement … risks being … a recipe for undue political interference and long negotiations, holding up resolution decisions with possibly serious systemic consequences,” warns Alessandro Leipold, chief economist of The Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think tank, in an analysis published Tuesday. He is also a former director of the International Monetary Fund’s European Department.

“There is reason to lament,” he adds, “that the SRM as currently envisaged falls appreciably short of a true single authority, and tends to perpetuate (rather than break) the sovereign-bank link.”