Most soccer fans were happy to have witnessed a superb game by the Spanish team that in previous matches had not lived up to the high expectations and often got lost in an endless passing game without much passion or adventure. On Sunday, the Spaniards showed, finally, that they are a unique squad that will go down in football history for their unparalleled technical capabilities and their capacity to outplay and overpower every opponent when it really matters. The Italians were badly beaten but their unexpected presence in the finals made up for most of the pain and disgrace they had to suffer that night.
Two days previously, at a summit of EU leaders, Spain and Italy had done their utmost to combine forces and get a result that would save both the political future of their prime ministers and their ailing economies. The perception immediately after the Brussels meeting was that Italian leader Mario Monti and his Spanish colleague Mariano Rajoy had done very well and had been able, in football terms, to defeat German Chancellor Angela Merkel. By threatening to veto European growth plans, the Italian and Spanish prime minister were able to get important concessions from countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.
Rajoy was happy because, in the future, insolvent Spanish banks can be directly recapitalized by eurozone bailout funds. That is good news for the Spanish state that will not be directly involved anymore in these expensive operations and will therefore be able to lower its own borrowing costs. On his return, Monti was welcomed as the savior of the Italian economy because he managed to extract from his reluctant European colleagues the promise that, when needed, the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) will be allowed to buy sovereign bonds from eurozone countries like Italy that are faced with unsustainable high interest rates on the financial markets. The general impression in Rome after the weekend: Unfortunately Pirlo and Balotelli could not make it on the pitch, but at least Monti saved the day for Italy.
Is it true that Spain was the big winner last weekend and Italy, with the exception of some diehard football fans, could feel satisfied as well? As often happens in the aftermath of European summits, close reading and interpretation of the texts shows that the jury is still out. Observers agree that the European Council took some very significant decisions to address the short-term crisis. By centralizing the supervision of the eurozone's banks under the European Central Bank (ECB), the often delaying influence of national supervisory authorities and politicians is weakened. That is good news because Europe needs more financial and monetary coherence among EU member states using the common currency. The same applies to the future capacity of the ESM to directly help fragile banks and struggling national economies.
But, as Andrew Duff, a prominent member of the European Parliament and strong supporter of further integration, put it: “Despite the progress made last week, much detailed work remains to be done -- and rapidly. The financial crisis is still with us, in modified form. Greece is still virtually bankrupt. … The size of the ESM firewall, with a maximum lending capacity of 500 billion euros, is almost certainly too small for the challenge of a hostile marketplace. And the entry into force of the fiscal compact treaty and the ESM yet depends on ratification by many national parliaments and on evading hostile action in constitutional courts.”
Did Merkel really suffer such a big defeat last weekend? In the German parliament she defended her concession by underlining that the new, strong role for the ECB fits perfectly with German plans for more political integration. She also stressed that the new banking supervision system and the ESM's assistance for banks will require a consensus decision by member states. Analysts agree with Merkel that allowing the ESM to buy government bonds to reduce countries' borrowing is merely applying an already existing instrument and not the big revolutionary breakthrough that Monti claims it to be.
In the months to come we will see how last weekend's decisions will work out in practice in Italy, Spain and the rest of the EU. Until then, one should be careful in naming winners and losers. Playing football is not the same as saving a currency.