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EU leaders seal bank watchdog deal

by Roddy Thomson
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference on the final day of an EU summit in Brussels. European leaders agreed to police thousands of eurozone banks from next year as they sought to boost growth in their austerity-battered economies and create much-needed jobs.

European leaders agreed Friday to police thousands of eurozone banks beginning next year as they sought to create much-needed jobs in their austerity-battered economies.

By the close of a two-day summit, France and Germany had patched up differences over how to beat the debt crisis, with the new watchdog for 6,000 banks a key condition for allowing a dedicated rescue fund to re-float troubled lenders.

Leaders cited "significant progress" on a 120-billion-euro ($155-billion) package of measures to try to kickstart a climb out of recession as social and political unrest hits Spain as well as Greece.

But the bank deal appeared to come too late for Spanish lenders, who need recapitalisation to the tune of some 40 billion euros that Madrid had hoped would not be added to its public debt burden for fear of sparking new pressures on money markets.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that direct recapitalisation by the eurozone rescue fund could not be retroactive, that it "will only be possible for the future."

Fellow hardliners the Netherlands and Finland adopted the same view when finance ministers from the three states met last month in Helsinki, seemingly reversing plans carefully laid down by the eurozone in June.

France is still pleading for the "Helsinki" trio to come round. A top EU official speaking anonymously after the summit ended said Paris has concerns about spillover effects from Spain, and maintained Merkel's remark came as "a surprise" as the 27 EU bloc leaders "did not settle this."

This official said the Spanish bank bailout could benefit from some direct recapitalisation later in the process, once the watchdog is up and running -- supposed to be later in 2013.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faces growing political problems with a general strike called for November 14 and key elections in the autonomous Basque Country on Sunday and independence-minded Catalonia next month.

Rajoy said the direct aspect of recapitalisation was not an "urgent" issue for Spain, while talk of sovereign aid -- expected to take the form of a credit line initially -- also remains on the back-burner.

With market pressures considerably eased since the summer, the fresh commitment bird's eye bank supervision led by the European Central Bank is supposed to anchor a re-designed economic and monetary union.

Leaders are beginning to believe -- after three years in full crisis mode -- that the euro can be made more attractive to influential EU states still outside the currency bloc like Poland, one of the bloc's strongest economies.

After an 11-hour session into the wee hours to reach the bank supervision deal, Merkel said it was about ensuring a "solid legal framework" as the ECB puts in place "hundreds" of staff.

The target date here is January 1, 2013, Merkel citing a need for "democratic legitimacy," including a change to voting rights to assuage concerns in non-euro territories where eurozone banks operate, namely the global financial centre of London.

The eurozone voice at the ECB could have out-voted non-euro members in adjudication by an existing network of national supervisors at the European Banking Authority, so it was agreed this would be re-weighted, an "unprecedented" decision according to the earlier participant.

Difficult decisions remain to be taken in two more summits before Christmas, as seen by Britain's David Cameron threat to veto the European Union's budget for the rest of the decade and snub the Nobel Peace Prize-giving ceremony in Oslo in December.

French President Francois Hollande suggested that the fruits of a financial transactions tax (FTT) that a group of EU states want to start next year be "dedicated to youth training" to get a lost generation of European youths into employment.

Youth unemployment is currently running in these two countries at more than 50 percent. Detailed plans are to be unveiled next week.

Hollande who will shortly head for Athens himself, also called for a "quick decision" on the resumption of Greece's drip-feed bailout and a 31.5-billion-euro tranche of loans frozen for months.

"The country's reserves are only sufficient until November 16," Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said, although he said he sensed that "the climate has changed" among partners in Brussels.