LUXEMBOURG – Euro zone countries will consider on Monday how to pay for the repair of their broken banks after health checks next year that are expected to uncover problems that have festered since the financial crisis.
Nobody knows the true scale of potential losses at Europe's banks, but the International Monetary Fund hinted at the enormity of the problem this month, saying that Spanish and Italian banks face 230 billion euros ($310 billion) of losses alone on credit to companies in the next two years.
Yet five years after the United States demanded its big banks take on new capital to reassure investors, Europe is still struggling to impose order on its financial system, having given emergency aid to five countries.
Finance ministers from the 17-nation currency area meeting in Luxembourg will tackle the issue of plugging holes expected to be revealed by the European Central Bank's health checks next year.
The president of the European Central Bank underscored the need for action in Washington at the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
"The effectiveness of this exercise will depend on the availability of necessary arrangements for recapitalizing banks ... including through the provision of a public backstop," Mario Draghi said on Friday. "These arrangements must be in place before we conclude our assessment," he said.
But the ministers' talks face an additional hindrance because Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, is not expected to attend the two-day Luxembourg meeting. Germany, Europe's biggest economy, in talks to form a new government.
During the region's debt turmoil, the European Union conducted two bank stress tests, considered flops for blunders such as giving a clean bill of health to Irish banks months before they pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
The ECB's new checks are seen as the last chance to come clean for the euro zone as the bloc tries to set up a single banking framework, known as banking union.
The debate opens amid ebbing political enthusiasm for banking union - originally planned as a three-stage process involving ECB bank supervision, alongside an agency to shut failing banks and a system of deposit guarantees. It would be the boldest step in European integration since the crisis.
"We have to find a solution now," said Michel Barnier, the EU Commissioner in charge of financial regulation, urging faster progress in the slow talks. "The next financial crisis is not going to wait for us."
In one sign of the divisions, Britain has repeatedly refused to sign off on the first pillar of the banking union framework, allowing the ECB monitor banks.
Having earlier agreed, London now wants additional assurances from ministers this week that Britain, which is outside the euro and polices its own banks, will not face interference from the ECB-led euro bloc.
Britain is likely to find a sympathetic ear in Berlin, which wants to keep London on side in its push to prevent stricter EU emissions rules to protect its luxury car makers.
Before the ECB takes over as supervisor late next year, it will conduct health checks of the roughly 130 banks under its watch.
This is the nub of the problem facing finance ministers at the two-day talks.
With the euro zone barely out of recession, a failure to put aside money to deal with the problems revealed could rattle fragile investor confidence and compound borrowing difficulties for companies, potentially killing off the meek recovery.
In turn, that raises the question about who pays for the holes that are found in balance sheets in countries such as Spain and Italy.
While Rome and Madrid would like easy access to the euro zone's permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, Germany, Finland and other strong countries say each country should pay for its own clean-ups.
This time around, the task of cleaning up banks should not be quite as daunting as five years ago because shareholders, bondholders and wealthy depositors can expect to take some of the losses, as happened in the bailout of Cyprus in March.
But if that is not enough, it will fall to governments to pick up the tab.
Although technical, talks about banking union have sparked an acrimonious debate touching on fundamental questions such as rewriting basic EU law that risk dividing the European Union.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott and John O'Donnell; Editing by Giles Elgood)