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EUROPEAN UNION

Germany and France urge deeper EU ‘political union’

The foreign ministers of Germany and France on Monday called for ambitious steps to strengthen the European Union after Britain's shock vote to leave the bloc.

Germany and France urge deeper EU 'political union'
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (r) and Jean-Marc Ayrault. Photo: DPA

“We will… take further steps toward a political union in Europe, and we invite the other European states to join us in this endeavour,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault wrote in a joint position paper.

The top diplomats of the two core EU founding members and biggest economies said that “Germany and France have a responsibility to strengthen solidarity and cohesion within the European Union”.

But they also signalled a willingness to accept a multi-speed union, writing that “we must… acknowledge that there are different degrees of ambition towards further integration among the member states”.

The two centre-left politicians proposed closer cooperation in three key policy areas – internal and external security, the migrant and refugee crisis, and on fiscal and economic cooperation.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, said that she had read the paper and considered it one of the many contributions that would shape the way ahead for the EU, as its government leaders agree on a common policy.

Ayrault and Steinmeier wrote in the paper, published in both German and French, that after the Brexit vote last Thursday, “the right answer is neither a simple call for 'more Europe' nor a mere phase of reflection”.

But they stressed that “Germany and France remain firmly convinced that the European Union is a historically unique and indispensable framework for the pursuit of freedom, prosperity and security in Europe, for fostering peaceful relations between its peoples and for helping bring peace and stability in the world”.

“Our two countries share a common destiny and a common set of values. Both together are the foundation for an ever closer union of our peoples.”

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ENERGY

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

European governments are announcing emergency measures on a near-weekly basis to protect households and businesses from the energy crisis stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine.

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

Hundreds of billions of euros and counting have been shelled out since Russia invaded its pro-EU neighbour in late February.

Governments have gone all out: from capping gas and electricity prices to rescuing struggling energy companies and providing direct aid to households to fill up their cars.

The public spending has continued, even though European Union countries had accumulated mountains of new debt to save their economies during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But some leaders have taken pride at their use of the public purse to battle this new crisis, which has sent inflation soaring, raised the cost of living and sparked fears of recession.

After announcing €14billion in new measures last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi boasted the latest spending put Italy, “among the countries that have spent the most in Europe”.

The Bruegel institute, a Brussels-based think tank that is tracking energy crisis spending by EU governments, ranks Italy as the second-biggest spender in Europe, after Germany.

READ ALSO How EU countries aim to cut energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Rome has allocated €59.2billion since September 2021 to shield households and businesses from the rising energy prices, accounting for 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Germany tops the list with €100.2billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP, as the country was hit hard by its reliance on Russian gas supplies, which have dwindled in suspected retaliation over Western sanctions against Moscow for the war.

On Wednesday, Germany announced the nationalisation of troubled gas giant Uniper.

France, which shielded consumers from gas and electricity price rises early, ranks third with €53.6billion euros allocated so far, representing 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Spending to continue rising
EU countries have now put up €314billion so far since September 2021, according to Bruegel.

“This number is set to increase as energy prices remain elevated,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told AFP.

The energy bills of a typical European family could reach €500 per month early next year, compared to €160 in 2021, according to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The measures to help consumers have ranged from a special tax on excess profits in Italy, to the energy price freeze in France, and subsidies public transport in Germany.

But the spending follows a pandemic response that increased public debt, which in the first quarter accounted for 189 percent of Greece’s GDP, 153 percent in Italy, 127 percent in Portugal, 118 percent in Spain and 114 percent in France.

“Initially designed as a temporary response to what was supposed to be a temporary problem, these measures have ballooned and become structural,” Tagliapietra said.

“This is clearly not sustainable from a public finance perspective. It is important that governments make an effort to focus this action on the most vulnerable households and businesses as much as possible.”

Budget reform
The higher spending comes as borrowing costs are rising. The European Central Bank hiked its rate for the first time in more than a decade in July to combat runaway inflation, which has been fuelled by soaring energy prices.

The yield on 10-year French sovereign bonds reached an eight-year high of 2.5 percent on Tuesday, while Germany now pays 1.8 percent interest after boasting a negative rate at the start of the year.

The rate charged to Italy has quadrupled from one percent earlier this year to four percent now, reviving the spectre of the debt crisis that threatened the eurozone a decade ago.

“It is critical to avoid debt crises that could have large destabilising effects and put the EU itself at risk,” the International Monetary Fund warned in a recent blog calling for reforms to budget rules.

The EU has suspended until 2023 rules that limit the public deficit of countries to three percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent.

The European Commission plans to present next month proposals to reform the 27-nation bloc’s budget rules, which have been shattered by the crises.

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