EU bank plan raises more questions than answers

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel had disagreed over the timetable to introduce a banking supervisor

European Union leaders have agreed they should create a single eurozone banking supervisor. But as far as concrete plans go, that's as good as it gets.

The intention is that the Single Supervisory Mechanism will help shore up ailing banks and eventually give them access to loans from Europe's bailout fund.

But exactly how this will be achieved, and to what timetable, remains vague. EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said on Friday that he hoped to have the "legislative framework" in place by January.

So, for the moment, Europe's political and banking elite are only working on an SSM "framework".

But even that seems dependent on what the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, said was the political will of member states.

"I believe it is realistic to finish work on the SSM by the end of the year; it is a matter of political will. Now the political will of member states is tested. I trust there is the will," Mr Rehn said.

The BBC's europe correspondent, Matthew Price, summed up the EU's position thus: "They are inching forward, and continuing to sign up to promises to do something."

Most analysts believe that an SSM will go some way to help secure the future of the single currency. The supervisor would be overseen by the European Central Bank and will work alongside the new eurozone debt rescue fund, the European Stability Mechnanism (ESM).

Once the SSM is in place, the ESM would then be allowed to recapitalise debt-laden banks directly, avoiding adding to a country's debt burden (as is Spain's preferred solution to its own banking crisis).

Banking union

However, the transition from Friday's promise to do something, to a position where the supervisor actually intervenes in a bank, is fraught with legal and logistical hurdles.

What is more, the SSM is only one stage along an even more complicated route towards the creation of a European banking union, followed by a common deposit guarantee scheme.

It would be a development likely to expose further divisions between the UK government - which wants no interference in the City of London - and its European partners.

Following Friday's agreement, the next stage is for the European Parliament and the Council to agree the legislation that will enable the SSM framework to be in place by 1 January.

Leaders, officials, and regulators will then knuckle down to thrash out the detail, with the aspiration that the SSM is up and running to oversee some 6,000 banks by 2014.

The timetable appears to have been a compromise between Germany and France, with Berlin having previously resisted pressure from Paris to implement the SSM rapidly.

France, Italy and the EU want the SSM in place quickly, arguing that the next big step in tackling the financial crisis - giving the ESM the power to rescue banks directly - cannot go ahead without it.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that getting the detail right should take precedence over speed. She wanted the new regulator to tackle only the biggest banks first, to make sure the system worked smoothly before it was expanded.

'Controversial'

After the framework timetable was announced, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt immediately raised a potential complication. "During the next year, the interesting question is how many of the countries who do not have the euro currency will join. As soon as [membership] becomes 18 - or even up to 26 - it will change the composition of supervision."

Poland plans to join the eurozone, but as yet remains outside the bloc and so has no representation at the European Central Bank to influence discussion.

But such macro issues pale against the myriad micro ones.

David Green, a former supervisor at the European Central Bank, has identified a host of complications that threaten to delay, confuse, or stymie progress towards creating the SSM.

Writing in the Financial Times, he asks: who sets the supervisory culture and with what legal authority? Which courts enforce decisions and hear appeals? How are the interests of member states balanced against each other? Does the ECB's treaty allow the extra powers of the SSM to be grafted onto its remit?

There are many other questions, Mr Green writes, adding that every one of them "tends to be controversial". And resolving them could take years, not months.

The phrase, the devil is in the detail, has rarely seemed so appropriate.

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