4:22am

Thu September 29, 2011
Europe

German Lawmakers Pass Expanded Euro Bailout Fund

Originally published on Thu September 29, 2011 4:53 pm

Germany's parliament approved a plan Thursday to expand the power of a European bailout fund for troubled countries that use the euro.

The Bundestag, or lower house, passed the bill 523-85 in a vote considered one of the biggest in Chancellor Angela Merkel's career.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the result, saying, "This signals to our European partners that you can rely on Germany."

The measure boosts the lending capacity of the European Financial Stability Facility, or EFSF, to 440 billion euros (about $600 billion). It also increases the fund's authority to buy government bonds of troubled eurozone countries and lend money to governments before they get into deeper financial trouble, among other things.

But most economists are already saying that a far bigger fund — perhaps as large as $2 trillion or $3 trillion — and even stronger powers are needed to prevent debt turmoil from spreading across Europe and hammering the banking sector.

Six more parliaments in the eurozone still need to approve the bailout changes, including Slovakia, which is not scheduled to vote on it until late October. (Cyprus and Estonia passed similar measures Thursday.)

German officials said Thursday's vote sends a strong message that Europe is taking decisive action to stabilize and preserve the eurozone. But analysts believe Europe will have to leverage the fund's power by partnering more with the European Central Bank or taking other steps. Peter Altmaier, chief whip of Merkel's ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union, said that's not currently on the table.

"All other further decisions will be taken on a step-by-step basis," he said. "And it would be more than premature to table decisions like this leverage issue that we cannot judge appropriate for the time being. We will tackle the next problems as they come, but not now."

Issues Of Trust

Before the vote, the leader of the Free Democrats, part of Merkel's governing coalition, appealed to fellow parliamentarians to vote not along party lines, but with a unified Europe in mind. Economics Minister Phillip Rosler also stressed that only a "stable, unified Europe" can win back people's trust in politics.

But former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck of the opposition Social Democrats blasted Merkel, saying her coalition has failed.

"Politics are no longer negotiating; they are being driven by the rating agencies — thumbs up and thumbs down," he said. "You and your government, Chancellor Merkel, lack the most important political quality in these times of danger: trust."

Lawmakers from all parties were united in calling for greater parliamentary participation in regard to the EFSF. Earlier this month, Germany's high court ruled that future government decisions on the fund will have to be cleared at least by a parliamentary committee before a full vote is taken.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble told Deutschlandfunk radio Thursday that the EFSF must be used as efficiently as possible, emphasizing that "the level of liability cannot be changed without a new Bundestag decision." Asked whether it is conceivable that parliament will one day soon discuss credit-leveraging, he said, "No one knows what the future will bring, but it is not conceivable that any decisions are taken by anyone but the German parliament."

Germany's upper house of parliament is widely expected to endorse the expansion plan Friday.

Financial Community Seeking Strong Action

The financial world has strongly criticized Merkel and fellow European leaders for what's been described as cautious, reactive leadership during this crisis.

Senior officials in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere are urging Germany and France to move more decisively. The Americans and others are urging Europe to create a safety net big enough to prevent Greece's debt woes from sparking a new global downturn.

Harvard economics professor and author Ken Rogoff says the risks are real and that a renewed sense of urgency is certainly needed.

"The risks now are approaching what we had in 2008, and particularly in Europe, urgent action is needed," he said. "They seem to be just waiting for things to unfold, for a disorderly default to unfold and a cascade of bank panics. I'm afraid this is a very nervous moment. And that needs to be communicated. Not just to leaders but to the public — especially in Germany."

Some Germans Have Mixed Feelings

Germans remain strongly supportive of European integration. But they worry that the end game involves the German taxpayer footing the bill for its fiscally imprudent neighbors.

"I'm really of two minds," said Martin Wortmann, a 68-year-old retiree from northwest Germany who was strolling with his wife near the historic Reichstag on a sun-filled Berlin afternoon. "That it has come this far is dreadful. We should have dealt with this much sooner. The situation is now so out of hand that we're being held ransom by the markets and are forced to do something. On the other hand, Germany is partly to blame with its excessive trade imbalance, and that is the heart of the problem, the imbalance within this monetary union among individual countries."

The libertarian, pro-business Free Democrats have seen their popularity plummet to historic lows, in part because of stances taken during the debt crisis that many voters have seen as anti-Europe.

Some party members have called for Greece to default and leave the eurozone. Frank Schaeffler said he and other FDP "rebels" are realists, while Merkel "is a euro romantic."

"Greece has no chance of getting out of this crisis if it stays within the eurozone," he said. "The markets know this — the news is all over town. It would be in the interest of everyone — both Greece and the rest of Europe — if Greece were to temporarily leave the eurozone, reintroduce the drachma, devaluate it. And then we can talk about how to support their banking system so as not to create a domino effect."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The German parliament today approved a measure to boost the lending capacity and power of a bailout fund. This is an effort to help debt-troubled countries in Europe and help that continent get past its debt crisis. This is a $600 billion bailout fund, and the latest measure gives the fund expanded powers to aid euro governments before they get into deeper trouble. And yet, many economists are saying that even $600 billion is not enough to call markets.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Berlin.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Chancellor Angela Merkel faced one of the biggest parliamentary votes of her career. In the end, despite some defections by members of her own coalition, the measure passed. It gives what's known as the European Financial Stability Facility new powers to make emergency loans to debt-troubled countries that use the euro before they get into a major crisis. And it expands the fund's ability to buy government bonds of troubled eurozone countries, among other things. German officials say today's vote sends a strong message that Europe is taking decisive action to stabilize and preserve the eurozone.

But already, there's talk that Europe will have to leverage the fund's power by partnering more with the European Central Bank, or taking other steps. Peter Alitmaier, the chief whip of Merkel's ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union, says that's not on the table for now.

PETER ALITMAIER: All other further decisions will be discussed and taken step-by-step. And it would be more than premature to table decisions like this leverage issue that we cannot judge appropriate for the time being. We will tackle the next problems one after the other, but not now.

WESTERVELT: But it's exactly that kind reactive, cautious leadership approach that the financial world has strongly criticized Merkel and fellow European leaders for exercising during this crisis. The problem now - and it's a big one - is that most economists think the current stability facility - even with expand powers - is simply not big enough to prevent debt turmoil from spreading across Europe and hammering the banking sector.

There's already talk of the need for a two or three trillion-dollar fund. Senior officials in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere are urging Berlin and Paris to move more decisively to create a safety net big enough to prevent Greece's debt woes from spreading and sparking a new global downturn. Harvard economics professor and author Ken Rogoff says the risks are real, and a renewed sense of urgency is needed.

KEN ROGOFF: The risks now are approaching what we had in 2008, and particularly in Europe, urgent action is needed. They seem to be just waiting for things to unfold, to have a disorderly default and a cascade of bank panics. I'm afraid this is a very nervous moment.

WESTERVELT: But here in Germany - despite strong support for the ideals of European integration - the worry remains that the endgame of all this involves the German taxpayer footing the bill for fiscally imprudent neighbors. Sixty-eight-year-old tourist and retiree Martin Wortmann from northwest Germany strolls with his wife near the historic Reichstag on a sun-filled fall Berlin day. Wortmann says he's conflicted about the debt drama and feels like Germany is being blackmailed by market speculators.

MARTIN WORTMANN: (German spoken)

WESTERVELT: I'm really of two minds. That it's come this far is dreadful, he says. We should have dealt with this problem much sooner. The situation is now so out of hand, we're being held ransom by the markets and forced to do something. On the other hand, he says, Germany's partly to blame, with its trade imbalance, and that's the heart of the problem, the imbalance within this monetary union among individual countries, he says.

The libertarian Free Democrats, or FDP - who are Chancellor Merkel's governing coalition partner - have seen their popularity plummet, in part because of positions taken during the debt crisis that many voters have seen as anti-Europe. Some FDP officials have called for Greece to default and leave the eurozone. Free Democrat MP Frank Schaffler says he and other FDP rebels are simply realists standing on principle, whereas Chancellor Merkel, he says, is a euro romantic.

FRANK SCHAFFLER: (Through translator) Greece has no chance in this crisis if it stays within the eurozone. The markets know this. It would be in the interest of Greece and Europe if Greece were to temporarily leave the eurozone, and then we can talk about how to support their banking system and avoid a domino effect.

WESTERVELT: The measure still needs to pass half a dozen more European parliaments. Germany - Europe's largest economy - today voted to expand the powers of the euro rescue fund. But once again, many are wondering if European leaders are reacting too late to appease the markets. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.