Leading article: Summit that can't shirk the really big question



After the wild gyrations of the euro crisis during much of last year, January has been relatively calm. Despite an initial spasm of panic, a slew of credit-rating downgrades came and went with little ado. The European Central Bank's €500bn of rock-bottom loans to banks put paid to immediate fears of a credit crunch. Even David Cameron's shock use of Britain's veto may not have been the final word; although he and Nicolas Sarkozy are yet to patch up their differences, Mr Cameron has agreed that EU institutions can police nascent eurozone-only budgetary rules.

So far, so good. But as European leaders head into yet another make-or-break summit today, it would be a mistake to expect too much. Indeed, if there is a sense of "summit fatigue", dampening expectations of a swift resolution, so much the better.

The central issue at today's meeting is a fiscal pact under which eurozone countries agree legally binding spending caps and debt limits. Agreement is vital to Angela Merkel's efforts to quell German taxpayers' fears that they will pay for the excesses of more profligate southerners. The plan raises major questions, both economic (is it wise to outlaw Keynesian stimulus?) and political (will it trigger referendums in some signatory countries?). But a draft deal must be forthcoming today if the timetable is to be met and the rules adopted at the next EU summit, in March, as planned. The stakes are high. Markets may be calmer than they were, but bond yields remain worryingly high and it would take only a hint of sliding commitment to send rates further skywards.

As if new fiscal rules were not tricky enough, two other areas need equally swift attention. One is the write-down of Greek debt. While disconcertingly stop-start in recent weeks, there are signs an agreement with private creditors is inching closer. Without one, the outlook is alarming, disorderly default a real possibility. But even a deal is no guarantee of stability as markets may spook over fears other euro bonds could suffer the same fate. And any bargain will need to be accompanied by rapid moves to recapitalise banks exposed to losses.

The last of the pressing priorities is Europe's bailout fund. Despite widespread agreement that the European Financial Stability Facility and the permanent European Stability Mechanism that will supersede it are too small, efforts to boost their firepower have stalled pending the fiscal pact. Once those talks are concluded, it will become a top priority.

Even were all the immediate questions to be answered, it would be premature to breathe too easily. Short-term stop-gaps only clear the way for structural changes more complex still.

On one, at least , we can expect to hear much from EU politicians today. There is, rightly, increasing concern at the lack of economic growth to help Europe out of the red. Ultimately, agreement will not be easy: for Germany, for example, expansion comes from structural reform; for France, from harmonising regulations; for Britain, from expanding the single market. But the fact that some immediate measures to stimulate growth will be high on today's agenda – notably a multibillion-euro fund to tackle youth unemployment – is at least a start.

All that remains, then, is the biggest question of all. So far, the German Chancellor has remained adamant that closer fiscal union is a matter of austerity alone. It is a stance she cannot maintain indefinitely. Without shared debts and a formal lender of last resort, the currency union is only half-made. It can only be hoped that fiscal rules will prove the guarantee that Mrs Merkel needs to start the debate with her electorate about the price worth paying for the euro. After recent signs of progress, the markets have been willing to, just about, hold their fire. But they will not wait forever.

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