Ireland is about to leave Europe's bailout program - that's the good news from the latest meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels. The bad news: No progress was made on a banking union.
The European Union is still treading water on the thorny issue of a community-wide banking union. EU finance ministers, gathered once again in Brussels, aren't making any decisions; instead, they're just repeating well-worn positions that haven't change in months.
According to EU diplomats, that is the fault of the German government, which is unwilling to shift its ground while coalition negotiations over the next new government are still going on in Berlin.
But Germany's incumbent Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, has another view: "The German government is fully capable of acting," he said, because all the parties in the country's future government agree on European policy.
And yet, Schäuble once again failed to offer a concrete proposal for the future liquidation of the eurozone's ailing banks. Instead, he would only confirm the timetable. "We want a political solution, a political agreement before the end of the year," he said in Brussels. "That is possible. It must stand on a secure foundation, because we can't take any legal risks when the financial markets are so volatile. I believe we will find a way."
The majority of EU states would be happy enough if the EU Commission - the EU's executive body in Brussels - decided which banks to shut down and which to save. But Germany wants to set up a new authority to take on this responsibility and leave the decisions to the Council of the European Union - the representatives of individual member states.
Since taxpayers' money may be needed to save the banks, so the German government argues, no Brussels-based authority should be allowed to make the decision on its own.
Plenty of other key points on the banking union remain unclear. The finance ministers' next meeting is on December 9, but we are unlikely to have a new German government then, either. That is not expected to happen until mid-December.
That's why EU diplomats in Brussels are already planning extra finance minister summits before Christmas. If there is no compromise on the banking issue by the end of the year, then the timetable on the banking union will look more uncertain - because the European Parliament must still pass the complex legislation associated with it - and it faces an election at the end of May.
Ireland wants return to normality
Talks were much happier when the ministers discussed Europe's crisis-prone countries - those that have been forced to take money from the European bailout fund. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan has now told his counterparts officially that Ireland will receive no more aid loans from mid-December onwards. Ireland wants to finance its debts on the free market once again.
"It's the right time to do it," he said. "We're very well-positioned at the moment. The purpose of the program was eventually to get out, in the sense that we had restored the economy and we could manage our affairs and fund ourselves in the market."
More than anything else, the Irish government wants to be free of the troika, which has kept a tight rein on Ireland's budget over the past three years. "We will become a normal euro-country once again," said Noonan.
Altogether, Ireland received 67.5 billion euros ($90.1 billion) in loans from European bailouts and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These loans, which were used to rescue the country's ailing banking sector, will now have to be paid back over the coming decades. Both Schäuble and Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, praised Ireland's move out of the bailout program as a success. "I think it is a good day to remember that we have major tasks ahead, but we are on the right path, and we have achieved a lot," said Schäuble.
By the end of the year, Spain, too, will no longer need bailout loans. Madrid has borrowed some 40 billion euros to save its ailing banks.