Germany deflects calls for monetary stimulus

Germany is deflecting calls for the European Central Bank to play a bigger role in solving Europe's debt crisis but has won the backing of France and Italy to unite the troubled 17-nation eurozone more closely.

'We want a strong, stable euro ... we will do everything to defend it,' Merkel says

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gesture to Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti at a news conference following a meeting to discuss the eurozone crisis in Strasbourg, France. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Germany deflected calls for the European Central Bank to play a bigger role in solving Europe's debt crisis but did win the backing of France and Italy to unite the troubled 17-nation eurozone more closely.   

Europe's biggest economy and the main financier of the eurozone's three bailouts has argued against allowing the ECB to use its firepower to ease a debt crisis that's shown alarming signs recently of spreading to big economies, like Italy.   

Instead of using the ECB's cash-printing power, the eurozone's richest countries decided to use political tools to dig their way out of the crisis: Germany and France agreed Thursday to push for changes to EU treaties to bring the eurozone's economic policies more in line with each other.


"In the treaty changes, we are dealing with the question of a fiscal union, a deeper political co-operation … there will be proposals on this, but they have nothing to do with the ECB," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday in Strasbourg, France, after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy's new Prime Minister Mario Monti.   

Many think the ECB is the only institution capable of calming frayed market nerves, and Merkel's continued dismissal of a greater ECB role knocked market sentiment and stocks all round Europe fell again after a morning rebound.

Sarkozy welcomes Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti at the meeting in Strasbourg. ((Michel Euler/Associated Press))

Potentially, the ECB has unlimited financial firepower through its ability to print money. However, Germany finds the idea of monetizing debts unappealing, warning that it lets the more profligate countries off the hook for their bad practices. In addition, it conjures up bad memories of hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s.   

For now, all three leaders agreed that current rules were not stringent enough and needed beefing up to prevent a repeat of the debt crisis that's rocked the eurozone for nearly two years.   

Sarkozy said "propositions for the modification of treaties" would be presented in the coming days.   

He wouldn't elaborate on what these changes may be but said they would be ready in time for the next EU leaders summit on Dec. 9. Treaty changes are, more often than not, a notoriously laborious endeavour.   

Merkel said the treaty changes would "make clear that we must take steps toward a fiscal union to express the conviction that we know policies must be more closely co-ordinated if you have a common, stable currency."   

"It is political confidence in Europe that has been lost — we can only win it back politically," Merkel said.

Borrowing costs rise for Germany, France  

This was the first meeting of the three leaders since Monti took over last week following mounting market concerns over Italy's huge debt, which stands at €1.9 trillion ($2.7 trillion), or a huge 120 per cent of economic output. Europe's current anti-crisis measures are not enough to deal with Italy's debt mountain.   

Sarkozy said the three leaders had agreed to meet again "very soon" in Rome at Monti's invitation to continue their three-way dialogue.   

The meeting comes amid signs that even Germany and France — the eurozone's two biggest economies — are not immune from the crisis that's already seen three relatively small countries bailed out.   

All three leaders said they would do what it takes to stabilize the situation and save the euro.   

"We want the euro, we want a strong, stable euro ... we will do everything to defend it," Merkel said.   

France has been reluctant to resort to changes to EU treaties to improve the way the eurozone countries work together and set policies and prevent future crises. Germany had pushed for such changes, saying voluntary pledges by national governments are no longer enough to boost market confidence.   

Merkel also maintained her opposition to the European Commission's new drive for eurobonds.   

Germany has opposed the use of eurobonds and has long called on fiscally wayward member states to clean up their own houses with as little outside intervention as possible. A big worry for Germany is that its low borrowing costs would get diluted if eurobonds came into issue and it would then be forced to pay higher rates to tap bond markets.   

"It would be completely the wrong signal to lose sight entirely now of these differing interest rates, because they are a pointer to where something still needs to be done and where we need to go further," she said.   

Monti, meanwhile, reiterated his pledge to balance Italy's budget by 2013 though he sidestepped the question on whether achieving that aim would require more austerity measures, and if so, whether it risked triggering a recession in the eurozone's third largest economy.