BRUSSELS - The leaders of France and Germany said Wednesday that they want the heads of the eurozone countries to elect the president of a new "economic government" who would direct regular summits to respond to the continent's financial crisis.
For many in the markets, the proposal fell short of hopes: a grand plan to save the euro and, in particular, a sign the eurozone was moving toward a single bond issued by the 17 countries.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined their proposals in a letter to Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council. They said that they hoped Van Rompuy would get the job.
The two leaders, who met in Paris on Tuesday, called the twice-yearly summits "the cornerstone of the new economic government of the eurozone."
However, heads of the eurozone governments already hold summits, though not regularly scheduled ones, under the chairmanship of Van Rompuy. The first was in 2008.
Sarkozy and Merkel also raised the politically sensitive issue of pensions, saying eurozone states should rapidly implement structural reforms, including changes in "retirement policy." They did not elaborate.
As global stocks fell, shares in stock exchange operators were hit particularly hard on news the two leaders want to introduce a tax on financial transactions. Deutsche Boerse slid 3.7 per cent and the London Stock Exchange Group PLC was down 4.7 per cent. Merkel and Sarkozy said the two countries' finance ministers would come up with a proposal by September that would be forwarded to the European Commission.
A transaction tax — a small percentage taken from foreign exchange and share transactions, for instance — has been proposed as a source of money to pay for bank bailouts. But European Central Bank head Jean-Claude Trichet says it would only work if introduced globally. The U.S. is also against the idea.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the proposals would bring a "higher level of commitment" to efforts to stabilize budgets and fight debt. Yet Wednesday's letter seemed to back away from the boldest proposal Sarkozy had put forward a day earlier — the creation of a eurozone economic government. The letter gave few details and described it primarily as a reinforcement of current policies.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told VRT radio the biannual summits would "absolutely not create an economic government," and called the proposal window dressing.
A prominent opposition lawmaker in Germany was equally unimpressed.
"What has been proposed here isn't a European economic government, but that Mr. Van Rompuy will be allowed to give an occasional report to Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy," Juergen Trittin, a co-leader of the Greens' parliamentary group, told Radio Eins.
Analysts said the proposals would do little to pull Europe out of its quagmire.
"It's all very long-term stuff, which is why the outcome's been quite disappointing," said Jennifer McKeown, a European economist at Capital Economics. "It doesn't address the current problems."
She said Sarkozy and Merkel had avoided the only real solution: a close fiscal union in which struggling countries could receive aid quickly without long negotiations. The eurobond would be one likely outcome of a closer union and would allow weaker countries to borrow more cheaply since the bonds would be backed by the entire eurozone. It might, however, raise costs for a powerhouse like Germany.
Sarkozy and Merkel said Tuesday that a eurobond might eventually be created, but not in the near future. Eurobonds are viewed with suspicion in Germany, where critics say they would encourage other countries to continue running up debt.
Without such a move, the eurozone is doomed, said McKeown.
"The likely outcome is the eurozone ceases to exist," she said, though the stronger core countries, like Germany, the Netherlands and France, might continue to band together.
The absence of new, short-term measures left the job of fighting the crisis in the hands of the European Central Bank for at least the next several weeks.
The bank is buying Italian and Spanish bonds on the secondary market, driving down their ten-year borrowing costs, which had been rising to perilously high levels above 6 per cent.
Last week the bank bought €22 billion ($32 billion) of bonds in the markets and that's got the yields on Italian and Spanish 10-year bonds down to the 5 per cent level, which is considered manageable for now.
But there are questions about how long the bank can maintain the practice, which puts the default risk of both countries onto its balance sheet and risks blurring the roles of central banks and government budget authorities.
Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet has indicated that the bank expects the €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility to take over the purchases as soon as national parliaments approve giving it that authority. That is expected to happen in September.
That prospect does not reassure markets, however, since the EFSF is not considered large enough to bail out Italy should that become necessary, and has funding limits set by eurozone leaders.
Theoretically, the European Central Bank has unlimited resources due to its ability to create new money — something the U.S. Federal Reserve and Bank of England have done.