‘A sign of weakness’
For months the Obama administration had been watching the eurozone crisis with frustration and mounting concern. Tim Geithner, the US Treasury secretary, and his team in Washington had tried to impart lessons learnt during their banking crisis – namely that only a huge wall of public money would calm panicked investors. Despite repeated high-profile European tours by Mr Geithner, and more discreet visits by his deputies, the Americans felt eurozone leaders still fell short.
In some quarters, the White House was suspected of playing politics. “The Americans had only one objective, which is fully understandable,” said one European who dealt directly with Mr Geithner. “The eurozone has to be saved because otherwise we’ll enter into a depression in Europe, and this will impact the economy of the US and my re-election.” US denials were not entirely believed in Europe.
The awkwardness was epitomised by Washington’s relationship with Ms Merkel, who occasionally found US intervention improper and unwelcome. Berlin had pushed for the Washington-based IMF to be part of the crisis response. But on occasions when Mr Obama weighed in, Ms Merkel would tell colleagues that European decisions should be made by Europeans.
Although the two leaders appear similarly cerebral and unemotional, people close to Ms Merkel say their styles are fundamentally different. Mr Obama can be professorial and lecturing, something Ms Merkel finds off-putting. Ms Merkel shuns such academic musings and is more short-term and tactical in her decision-making.
Still, many in Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris welcomed American intervention, particularly as a counterweight to Berlin. US officials say they were frequently dragged into crisis disputes by competing national capitals and urged to press the Germans to move more decisively. On other occasions, they say, the German government called on Washington to push struggling eurozone countries to implement promised reforms.
Regardless of whether European leaders welcomed US intervention, they felt Mr Obama was on top of the eurozone portfolio, something they found remarkable for a leader with so much on his plate.
Yet when eurozone leaders were summoned again by Mr Sarkozy at 9.30pm that night in Cannes, several were surprised to find Mr Obama chairing the meeting. “It was strange,” said a member of the German delegation. “It was also a signal that Europe was not able to do that; it was a sign of weakness.”
Many in the room expected the evening to be dedicated to persuading Mr Berlusconi to accept IMF assistance. The Italians had rejected it that morning, arguing it would create the impression they could not handle the crisis on their own, while providing insufficient resources to deal with the fallout. They countered with an offer to accept IMF monitoring, but not funds.
But Mr Obama opened the session with something different. He had a new plan to increase the size of the eurozone firewall – an idea that put Germany front and centre.
The decision by Mr Sarkozy to cede the chair to Mr Obama, consciously or not, should not have come as a surprise. Since the outset of the crisis, Paris and Washington had almost identical recipes for solving it: a firewall of such size that no bond trader would question whether the eurozone had sufficient funds or political will to rescue the heavily indebted south.
To both Mr Geithner and his French counterparts, the most obvious source for that firewall was the ECB, which literally has the power to print money. The US had demonstrated the crisis-fighting power of a central bank when the Federal Reserve bought up huge tracts of Treasuries in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. But Berlin has long opposed using a central bank to fund governments.
It was a matter of principle
German opposition was rooted in its dark history: the hyperinflation of the interwar years that helped doom the Weimar Republic had been caused, in part, by central bank printing presses, which churned out marks to pay war reparations. At German insistence, the ECB had been modelled after the Bundesbank, which was given complete independence from meddling politicians when it was established in the 1950s, to avoid a repeat of the 1920s . The German government also demanded that the EU’s 1992 Maastricht treaty, which laid the foundations for the euro’s creation, bar the ECB from buying sovereign bonds.
Both Mr Geithner and Mr Sarkozy had spent months trying to solve two seemingly mutually exclusive problems: increasing the firewall enough to convince bond traders there was sufficient eurozone money to prevent a Greek default from being repeated elsewhere, while not falling foul of German objections.
On the eve of Cannes, US and French delegations agreed a new plan to increase crisis-fighting reserves they hoped would be acceptable in Berlin. It involved a form of cash known by few beyond the cognoscenti of international public finance: special drawing rights, or SDRs.
Technically, SDRs are not money. They are an asset created by international agreement in 1969 and held by the IMF for its member countries, a substitute for gold or US dollars in global financial accounting. Sometimes referred to as “paper gold”, they cannot be held by anyone other than the IMF and must be converted into another currency before they can be spent. And yet they have real value, with one SDR currently trading close to the value of one British pound.
In 2009, in the wake of the Lehman crisis, G20 leaders increased the amount of SDRs in existence by $250bn, essentially creating new IMF firefighting reserves out of thin air. At Cannes, the US and France wanted to do it again but instead of giving them to the IMF, the eurozone would devote ￠140bn in SDRs to its depleted bailout fund.
Even those involved in drawing up the plan admit it was hastily thrown together. Back in that Obama-chaired meeting, the group found themselves enmeshed in German politics. “Our preference in the US is that the ECB should act a bit like the Federal Reserve did but that doesn’t seem to be a viable option,” Mr Obama said at the start, in a clear reference to German opposition.
But Ms Merkel now had another problem. Officials said she was open to Mr Obama’s idea. But SDRs are not controlled by national governments; they are controlled by central banks. And Jens Weidmann, the head of the Bundesbank, was opposed.
The Bundesbank, which is responsible for representing Germany at the IMF, had picked up word of the scheme through sources at the fund in Washington. Mr Weidmann had quickly drafted a letter to the German government outlining his objections. Mr Weidmann’s reasoning was both practical and ideological. Practically, the German central banker felt the plan smacked of desperation. Using foreign reserves to fill the bailout fund would send markets the wrong message: only through financial jerry-rigging could funding be found.
But more importantly to Mr Weidmann was the principle: SDRs are, like a country’s gold holdings, part of a government’s foreign reserves, which are the exclusive responsibility of the independent central bank to manage – not for politicians to commit willy-nilly to rescue programmes. The Bundesbank had no problem with the 2009 decision to increase SDRs for the IMF, since that is what SDRs were for. But committing them to the eurozone’s bailout fund set a dangerous precedent.
Mr Weidmann’s letter urged Ms Merkel to bury the proposal. But according to German officials, their delegation did not get the letter before leaving for Cannes. Instead, they only learnt of Mr Weidmann’s objection over the phone after they arrived in France, and then in a series of calls attempted to convince him to change his mind. It had become clear to Ms Merkel’s camp that they were about to be surrounded that morning during a bilateral meeting between the chancellor and Mr Obama in the cellar of the Palais. “The French, the Italians all would be willing to do this,” said a member of the German delegation.
But Mr Weidmann could not be moved.
So when Mr Sarkozy quickly endorsed Mr Obama’s idea at the evening session, and turned to Ms Merkel for her support, she delivered the bad news: the Bundesbank had rejected it and she could not agree without the Bundesbank. She supported the plan politically, and if Italy agreed to the ￠80bn IMF programme she may be able to go to the Bundestag to increase the size of the rescue fund itself. But on SDRs, the answer was no.
‘The storm was over’
To some in the room, the discussion seemed otherworldly. Although the eurozone was on the brink of imploding because of Greece and Italy, it was Ms Merkel – whose economy was the stalwart anchor of the continent – who had been cornered. Mr Obama had agreed with the Italians that the IMF programme was a bad idea. “I think Silvio is right,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Sarkozy attempted to manage the three-way impasse. The US wanted Germany to contribute its SDRs but Germany was only willing to give a partial commitment if Italy gave in on the IMF programme. Giulio Tremonti, Italy’s finance minister, held firm: Rome would accept IMF monitoring but no programme. Would the Italian monitoring plan, plus a commitment by Germany to contribute bilateral loans, be enough, Mr Sarkozy asked.
“No. Germany has one-fourth of all [eurozone] SDR allocations,” Mr Obama objected. “If you have all the EU countries together but not Germany?.?.?.?it starts losing credibility.”
Then came Ms Merkel’s tearful breakdown. “That is not fair. I cannot decide in lieu of the Bundesbank. I cannot do that.”
The emotional outburst appeared to temper the American and French demands for an agreement there and then. “He saw that he went too far,” one European in the room said of Mr Obama.
The US president asked whether Ms Merkel could work it out with the Bundesbank by Monday. Mr Sarkozy suggested finance ministers meet to agree the details before the summit ended the next day. Perhaps something vague could be mentioned in the summit’s communiqué, Mr Obama suggested. No, said Mr Sarkozy, but we could meet again in the morning.
It was as if the two men had not heard her. She made the point again: “I’m not going to take such a big risk without getting anything from Italy. I’m not going to commit suicide.”
And with that, the meeting ended. Leaving the late-night session, Mr Obama put his arm around Ms Merkel as if to comfort her – a scene captured by the White House’s official photographer. The image adorned the walls of the West Wing for months.
The leaders met again the next morning but the momentum was gone. “The storm was over,” said one person at both meetings. The SDR plan would never again see the light of day. Italy would get a monitoring programme but no funding. And to compound the failure, Mr Berlusconi at his closing news conference publicly acknowledged what everyone had assiduously attempted to keep secret: that the IMF had offered him a rescue programme. Italy would suffer the stigma of needing a rescue but without receiving any assistance.
The Cannes failure provided new oxygen to the eurozone fire. When markets reopened, Italian borrowing costs soared. Within the week they would nearly touch 7.5 per cent. Greece’s would go above 33 per cent, a level almost without precedent for a developed country. Now, with no new firewall in place, it was unclear what would save the euro.
德国的反对立场源于该国的黑暗历史：在两次世界大战之间的岁月里将魏玛共和国(Weimar Republic)推入绝境的恶性通胀，在一定程度上就是央行的印钞机造成的；当时的德国央行为支付战争赔款大量发行货币。在德国的坚持下，欧洲央行以德国联邦银行（Bundesbank，即现在的德国央行——译者注）为模板建立，后者在上世纪50年代成立时被赋予了完全独立的地位，使其免遭政客的插手，以免重蹈上世纪20年代的覆辙。德国政府还要求《马斯特里赫特条约》(Maastricht treaty)禁止欧洲央行购买主权债券。欧盟在1992年签署了该条约，为创建欧元奠定了基础。