0 comments

UPDATE 3-German court removes hurdle to euro zone bailout fund

by on September 12, 2012 2:35 pm BST
 

Wed Sep 12, 2012 10:35am EDT

* Top German court gives conditional approval for rescue
fund

* Court says lawmakers must be consulted on increase in ESM

* Decision boosts euro and global stocks

By Annika Breidthardt and Diana Niedernhoefer

KARLSRUHE, Germany, Sept 12 (Reuters) – Germany’s
Constitutional Court gave a green light on Wednesday for the
country to ratify Europe’s new bailout fund, boosting hopes that
the single currency bloc is finally putting in place the tools
to resolve its three-year old debt crisis.

In an eagerly anticipated ruling that has had investors on
tenterhooks for months, the court in the southern city of
Karlsruhe insisted the German parliament be given veto rights
over any increase in Berlin’s contribution to the 700 billion
euro European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

But the strings it attached to its endorsement of the ESM
and a separate European pact on budget rules were less onerous
than many had feared. The euro shot up to a four month high
against the dollar and global stocks rose to a five month peak.

“This is a good day for Germany and a good day for Europe,”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech to parliament.

Germany is the only country in the 17-nation euro zone that
has not ratified the ESM, an important tool to stem the crisis
that has forced bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and is
now threatening big countries like Italy and Spain.

Had the court upheld complaints against the rescue fund by
thousands of German plaintiffs it would have delayed its
implementation or even doomed it, dealing a devastating blow to
policymakers and sending markets reeling.

European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi announced
plans last week to buy “unlimited” amounts of government bonds
issued by stricken euro states like Spain and Italy in order to
reduce their borrowing costs.

That plan fuelled optimism in the markets, but it was
contingent on the ESM coming into force. Following Wednesday’s
ruling, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said he
expected the rescue fund to be operational within weeks.

Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the group of euro zone
finance ministers, set a first meeting of the ESM’s board of
governors for Oct. 8, another sign of optimism that the fund
will soon be up and running.

“The euro zone has got over another hurdle, and slowly but
surely, the region is getting more stable, less risky,” said
David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global
Equities in Paris.

TWO CONDITIONS

Roughly 37,000 plaintiffs, including democracy advocates,
lawmakers from Merkel’s ruling coalition and others from a
far-left party, had argued that the ESM amounted to an illegal
transfer of sovereignty from Berlin to Brussels.

The court rejected the complaints as “largely unfounded” but
did set two main conditions.

First, German liability in the rescue fund must be limited
to 190 billion euros, the share set out in the current ESM
treaty, and any increase in that amount will require prior
approval by the Bundestag lower house of parliament, the court
said.

Until now, Merkel has always succeeded in getting new aid
measures through parliament, in part because of the support of
opposition parties like the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens.

Second, the court said a clause in the ESM treaty which
seeks to keep decisions of the fund confidential “must not stand
in the way of the comprehensive information of the Bundestag and
of the Bundesrat (upper house)”, meaning both chambers would
have the right to be consulted on the ESM’s activities.

The German government may now have to incorporate the
court’s reservations in some form of addendum or protocol to the
ESM treaty, although this is not expected to take much time.

“These conditions are significantly less onerous than they
might have been,” said J.P. Morgan economist Alex White.

Spain and Italy, whose struggling economies are likely to be
the main beneficiaries of the ECB’s debt-buying programme,
hailed the ruling, with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti
calling it “excellent news”.

It represents a victory for Merkel, who has been forced to
walk a fine line between helping weaker euro states and keeping
her sceptical domestic audience on board ahead of a federal
election one year from now where she will seek a third term.

The centre-right chancellor should now be able “to hold on
to her domestically popular line of managing the eurozone crisis
with a mixture of commitment and conditionality”, said Carsten
Nickel, a political risk analyst at Eurasia.

The Constitutional Court, one of Germany’s most trusted
institutions, has earned a reputation as a thorn in the side of
the European Union by delaying treaties to check their legality.

But legal experts said the court’s decision on Wednesday had
underlined Germany’s commitment to deeper European integration.

What the ruling does not do is remove the threat of further
challenges down the road.

Peter Gauweiler, a eurosceptic lawmaker from Merkel’s
Bavarian sister party and one of the plaintiffs, hailed the
ruling as “a very big success”, in part because the court agreed
to take a closer look at the ECB’s bond buying plan at a later
date.

“They are clearly not discouraging further lawsuits, rather
the contrary,” said Franz Mayer, a law professor at Bielefeld
University.

Kai von Lewinski, a legal expert at Humboldt University in
Berlin, said: “We can be very sure this has not been the last
decision of the German constitutional court. The ESM is safe,
but the role of the European Central Bank definitely is not.”