French Finance Minister Le Maire Stirs Discord With Two-Speed Pitch for EU Markets Unity

French Finance Minister Le Maire Stirs Discord With Two-Speed Pitch for EU Markets Unity

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire slammed the European Union for making only sluggish progress in bolstering capital markets, raising tensions over a project officials say is crucial to avoid prolonged economic weakness.

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(Bloomberg) — French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire slammed the European Union for making only sluggish progress in bolstering capital markets, raising tensions over a project officials say is crucial to avoid prolonged economic weakness.

Speaking before a discussion with EU peers in Ghent, Belgium, on how to advance capital markets union among the bloc’s 27 member states, Le Maire instead proposed that a small group of countries forge ahead alone.

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He said it would be enough for three or four governments to volunteer, adding that they could agree to joint supervision, a common savings product and guarantees for securitization.

“I’m fed up with discussions,” he said. “I’m fed up with empty statements. Do you really think that China and the US will be impressed with our statements? We need decisions. And we need strong decisions.”

Completing CMU has become a top priority for the EU as it faces huge financing needs for the climate and digital transition that can’t be met by public funds. There are also increasing concerns that countries are emerging from the double blow of the Covid pandemic and energy crisis with persistently weak economic growth.

Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe, who has led talks on a draft statement on CMU measures that is expected to be adopted by finance ministers next month, said he would speak with Le Maire in the coming weeks to find a way forward.

“The moments before reaching agreement on really important topics are always full of really strong disagreements,” he said.

Donohoe added: “The only reason I’m doing all of this is to find a statement that can supply further ambition.”

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Despite nearly a decade of work on CMU, officials say the EU’s underdeveloped markets compared with the US are still undermining its strategic autonomy and encouraging businesses to seek funding abroad, or even leave the continent entirely.

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde has added to the sense of urgency, saying progress would be the best way to prepare the EU for the potential economic disruption from Donald Trump returning as US President.

Speaking in Ghent on Friday, she said there is currently a net financial outflow of €250 billion ($271 billion) a year from Europe to foreign markets, predominantly the US.

France’s Le Maire added that “the US is becoming richer and richer, and Europeans are becoming poorer and poorer because we are not taking the necessary decisions to invest massively.”

A key objective in the draft statement Donohoe is working on is to create a European version of the US Securities & Exchange Commission, potentially by granting more powers to the European Securities and Markets Authority. The proposals also include tax incentives and cuts to regulatory burdens to drive equity investment, and ways to channel retail savings into more productive investment.

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Efforts to complete CMU have so far stumbled on national authorities’ reluctance to cede regulatory powers. There are also challenges harmonizing insolvency regimes and allaying concerns that small companies would be disadvantaged. 

Le Maire indicated he was unimpressed with the ideas in Donohoe’s six-page statement.

“I’m here to decide, not to publish a 10th, 15th or 20th statement on CMU in which there is nothing or almost nothing,” he said.

Mixed Response

The response from other finance officials was mixed. 

EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni welcomed the French minister’s initiative but defended what he called the “ambitious” work to get an agreement between the whole EU.

Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, said he shared Le Maire’s desire to make progress but indicated the EU’s largest economy wouldn’t join the initiative.

“I’m not pushing for a multi-speed CMU — as my friend Bruno says — but for a top-speed CMU with all 27,” he told reporters at the start of the two-day meeting of EU counterparts.

Danish Economy Minister Stephanie Lose didn’t dismiss the French idea.

“There should be an opportunity to go ahead where there’s nothing that speaks against it,” she told Bloomberg in an interview. “We can’t just keep talking about things or be very divided in what we want, and then it comes to a standstill because you can’t find a way forward.”

—With assistance from Kamil Kowalcze and Sanne Wass.

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