COMMENT: Is Estonia's euro membership a done deal?

By bne IntelliNews May 4, 2010

Edward Hugh blog -

Is Estonia's euro membership a done deal? Well, if you read this report from Euractiv, citing unnamed EU Commission officials, it is:

"'If nothing extraordinary happens, the Commission will give its positive opinion for the accession of Estonia to the euro zone on 12 May,' an EU official said, clearing the way for Baltic country to join the euro in 2011."

There just one little snag here: that extraordinary, "fat tail" event seems to have just happened. For the Commission to be able to move forward on Estonia's euro membership, the European Central Bank (ECB) will have to agree. And it is here that Estonian journalist Mikk Salu steps in (in Estonian in the newspaper Eesti Paevaleht, summarised in English here) with a "not so fast". Salu reports on a closed-door meeting of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament held on April 13. The meeting had a single-item agenda: Estonia's membership of the Eurozone, and the meeting was attended by ECB Executive Board member Juergen Stark. According to MEPs who attended the meeting (but did not wish to be identified), Stark was "stark": Estonia is not going to be admitted. The reason given was that in the wake of the recent crisis affecting the Eurozone, new criteria will be introduced - including per-capita GDP and competitiveness sustainability - and on these counts Estonia will not qualify.

Salu also spoke to Estonian MEP Ivari Padar, who attended the meeting and confirmed the substance of the discussion, although Padar did try to mediate the situation slightly, saying: "You know, he is a central banker, and central bankers are a conservative lot", etc etc. On phoning the ECB itself and the Commission, the only reply he got to a straight question seems to have been "no comment".

Basically, as I said, maybe the ECB are a conservative crowd, but I think it is very hard to see Estonia being admitted to the euro without ECB backing, and indeed looking at what is happening over in Greece at the moment, and in the German Constitutional Court, I think it is very hard to see any new members at all in the immediate future. Consensus thinking right now seems to be more towards small(er) is more beautiful.

None of this surprises me, indeed when I wrote my last post on Estonia, back in February, it seemed to be an increasingly likely outcome.

But as Fitch pointed out when they raised their Estonia outlook, while Eurozone membership looks increasingly possible, it is not yet certain. Fitch warned in their report that even if Estonia meets all the formal Maastricht reference criteria for euro entry, there is still a risk that the European authorities' interpretation of these same criteria could lead them to reject Estonia's application. According to Fitch, in Estonia's case uncertainty surrounded whether the idea of "sustainable price performance" was going to be consistent with the deflation which is to be expected from such a severe recession, after inflation had so recently been in the double digit range. The agency also added that one-off measures taken by the government to reduce the budget deficit in 2009 could also count against it in the EU authorities' judgment of whether the medium-term budget plans are credible.

The first point is an important one I think, and is reiterated by the ECB's own Jurgen Stark in an interview given to the German magazine Der Spiegel this weekend: "But when taking on board new members, we will need to take an even closer look, concerning the data and the sustainability of convergence," he is quoted as saying.

Indeed if we go back to the 172-page Commission document leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel in March, the EU Stability and Growth Pact is increasingly going to focus on issues surrounding competitiveness as well as on fiscal deficit ones. That is what the whole debate over the Greek and Spanish economies which EU leaders are engaging in this week is all about. And any country that is not considered to be in completely good health under the SGP criteria is hardly likely to get the green light from the ECB and Ecofin.

It is obvious that the Estonian economy is still suffering from earlier structural distortions that have not yet been corrected. If we come to the consumer price index, this was only down about 2% in 2009, far short of the deflationary adjustment which will be needed to restore growth and competitiveness.

And to cap it all, for the first time since the start of the financial crisis, Moody's has chosen this, of all moments, to up its ratings outlooks for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The decision was apparently based on the idea that the contraction has been stabilized (which it has), but as we are unfortunately about to see, stabilization and getting back to growth are not one and the same thing. In Estonia's case, the more favourable rating was a reflection of the expectation that the country "will soon be able to join the eurozone":

Estonia's "economy and banking sector are exhibiting signs of a gradual recovery," Kenneth Orchard, a Moody's analyst in London, said. "Equally important, the government's impressive fiscal performance in 2009 means that Estonia is likely to be permitted to adopt the euro next year."

And if I'm reading this report aright, Latvia just declared a 9% general government fiscal deficit for 2009, well above the 6.7% which was originally estimated. Cry victory if you will, but perhaps it would be prudent to wait till the war is actually over before you cry it too loudly.

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