Jeremy Woolfe finds much talk, but little action so far on the European Commission’s proposed €315bn investment plan

Life has potentially been breathed into the EU’s new European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI), the plan with the ambitious aim to combat the EU’s economic stagnation.

EFSI, which aims to inject €21bn into €315bn of investments, is said to be at “the very heart” of president Jean-Claude Juncker’s investment offensive.

The step forward sees the idea converted into an actual proposal for an EU Regulation – that is, a set of rules that would apply uniformly across the whole economic zone.

It has reached draft legalisation after only a scant 50-plus days since the first announcement was made, in November 2014.

Its backers hope, perhaps optimistically, that the Regulation can now be rushed through the Brussels legislative machinery, to see the light of day by June this year.

To achieve this, it will have to clear hurdles in both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which represents the EU member states.  

The €315bn fund, which would seek to invest over three years, is hoped to attract private and public investments into economically “strategic” sectors.

These would include the development of the EU’s broadband networks, and energy transmission lines.

Also, it would support smaller companies – that is, those having fewer than 3,000 employees.

The intention is to encourage economic growth in the EU by underpinning investments using various processes, such as securitisation. This would reduce the risk factor for investors into target projects.

EFSI is to work “in close partnership” with the European Investment Bank (EIB). The bank applies strict rules on the viability of placements.

One sign of the urgency of the initiative is that, as soon as December last year, a task force had already identified more the 2,000 relevant projects, worth more than €1.3trn.  

Another indication of haste is a recent announcement of a forthcoming advisory service for potential investors, to be set up by the EIB, within months.   

The plan should be seen as working in conjunction with the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF), but there will be no direct overlap.

While EFSI focuses on attracting private investors in economically viable projects, the bulk of ESIF consists of grants. Under these, EU member states are encouraged to at least double them to achieve innovative financial instruments.

There are two strongly clashing assessments of Juncker’s plan, sitting alongside a third group that is sitting on the fence. For those of opposing views, in the one corner are the sceptics, who scorn EFSI.

Their opponent is the European Commission-EIB combine. All groups have solid credentials in economics.

An early characterisation of scorn came in The Economist newspaper. It carried a cartoon that portrayed president Juncker as a magician, and poured derision on his plan as “unbelievable”!

One clearly jaundiced view came from another high-status platform. The words were: “It could happen, it could happen!” but meaning, it probably wouldn’t. This was expressed by Erik Nielsen of UniCredit, at a recent meeting of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

The chief economist at the Milan-based banking and financial services firm listed several “missing” criteria. These included (unlikely) waivers from the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), although the Commission will allow some limited concessions to ensure countries are not hindered by the 3% new debt threshold.

He added a need for work on the SGP to separate investment from consumption. The bank’s equity value is over €600trn.

Close to home, the Commission itself states that pension funds are, in principle, following EFSI with interest, but not committing themselves. It finds it “too early to give figures” on the proportion of the estimated €12trn of European insurance and occupation pension at present invested outside the EU that might be moved to inside the fold.

Among those sitting on the fence is PensionsEurope itself, representing the occupational pension sector. The federation states that EFSI could be a “step in the right direction”. 

“No doubt the investors will look into the matter and make their decisions in due course.”

It adds, pragmatically, that pension funds “just have to look into individual projects – and decide whether to invest or not”.

Similarly, Joana Valente, of BusinessEurope, tells IPE: “We are still analysing the proposal”.

However, she adds, it could be “an important part of an investment-driven EU recovery”.

Notably, the organisation published, in November, a 30-plus page study on “expectations from an EU Investment Plan”.

This finds that: “Over six years since the onset of the financial crisis, the EU is the only major global economic region to have failed to return to pre-crisis levels of economic output”.

Clearly, the industry body is anxious for a solution.