Despite the changing of the guard on the European Commission, the new commissioner in charge of economic policy vowed to press ahead with the nascent European Union-wide banking union, saying the new supervisory system amounts to “a revolution.”
“It will change the way the banking sector operates,” Jyrki Katainen, the new commissioner in charge of economic and monetary affairs, told financial executives gathered in Lisbon this week for a Euro50 Group conference. “It will change the way the EU addresses inter-connectedness and spillovers. It is about collectively cutting the Gordian knot that has linked banks with their sovereigns for centuries.”
Katainen, former prime minister of Finland, replaced Olli Rehn in July as economic and monetary affairs commissioner. He was also named one of the commission’s vice presidents, and is expected to work closely with former Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who was named commissioner in charge of the euro and social dialogue. Both were considered to be hardliners on the Eurozone crisis. They will serve on the commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, who is scheduled to take over the commission presidency in November.
Katainen signaled in his speech to the Euro50 Group that the banking union, formalized in the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD), will remain a top priority. The law established a common supervisory framework for the EU’s biggest banks and financial institutions, as well as a common mechanism to wind down failing banks with bail-out funds coming from the sector. Intended to tighten financial regulations in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the major overhaul of banking supervision is being implemented in stages. The European Central Bank is scheduled to take over direct supervision of about 6,000 banks in November.
“This is a major step and a spectacular breakthrough for EU integration,” Katainen said of the banking union. “Citizens may not realize it yet, but for the financial community, it is a game changer as important as the introduction of the euro. Of course, we are still in the early days of this new world and it will inevitably be a learning process.”
Katainen acknowledged the lawmakers are “not across the finish line,” but reiterated the importance of the new supervisory system for stability in the financial markets and a return in market confidence.
“For years now, we have seen that the banking sector has often been either the source or an amplifier of shocks. And thanks to the ever-present banking-sovereign link, these shocks have reverberated, weakening national economies, spreading contagion across the EU and, in some cases, more broadly,” Katainen said in his speech.
The banking union is a crucial step in ending the fragmentation and national ring-fencing, as well as repairing “past loopholes or oversights,” the new commissioner said. Katainen added that the single rulebook will be important not just for those Member States which use the euro, but for all 28 members of the bloc.
“For the first time ever, bank regulators will follow the same detailed supervisory manual from Helsinki to Nicosia, enforcing a consistent and comprehensive common approach,” Katainen said.
Katainen noted the importance of the ongoing stress tests and asset quality reviews by the European Central Bank of 131 major firms in 19 Member States, which represent about 85 percent of banking assets in the Eurozone. Those results, along with additional analysis by the European Banking Authority, will ensure the ECB begins its new role “with a clear view of directly supervised banks from the outset,” Katainen said. The stress test results are expected shortly, but Katainen said the asset quality review already uncovered hidden problems in Portugal’s Banco Espirito Santo.
Katainen, former vice president of the European People’s Party, was confirmed for his new post by European Parliament in July.