IN THE LATE Middle Ages the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds in northern Europe, dominated maritime trade in the Baltic and North seas. Now finance ministers from the northern states, characterised by their fiscally hawkish and free-market views, are hoping to set the course for reforms to the European Union. Composed of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden, the group, dubbed the New Hanseatic League, is starting to have some influence.
The immediate impulse for the alliance, which first assembled over dinner in Brussels about a year ago, is Brexit. The group had considered its interests well enough represented as long as Britain’s free-market stance and Germany’s fiscal prudence tempered the French enthusiasm for “solidarity” (ie, redistribution) and protectionism. But Britain’s withdrawal means that they have lost a champion of openness.
At the same time, the French and the Germans have an irksome habit of cooking up reforms to the single-currency area between them. The latest example of that was in June, when Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel agreed a common position. Their declaration formed the basis for the package of reforms that EU finance ministers thrashed out on December 4th, and which will be formally agreed on by heads of state in Brussels on December 14th.
Some proposals—such as those to strengthen the euro zone’s bank-resolution and sovereign-rescue funds—have broad support. The league’s abhorrence of fiscal transfers, though, has put it on a collision course with the French. Mr Macron has pushed for a common budget to help stabilise unlucky countries struck down by economic problems. But a joint paper by the league’s finance ministers in March stresses that “first and foremost” countries must be in “full compliance” with the EU’s fiscal rules. If each member acted responsibly and whipped its public finances into shape, then it would be able to deal with economic shocks without other states’ taxpayers having to bail it out. The hawks argue, with an obvious eye on Italy, that a stabilisation scheme that shares risks across countries would also encourage profligacy. The league would rather concentrate on unleashing market forces within the EU—for instance, accelerating reforms to the capital market, or striking more trade deals with third countries.
The eight Hanseatic countries, which together constitute barely a tenth of the EU’s population, cannot block decisions by Europe’s Council of Ministers. (Most formal votes require a “qualified” majority; for a proposal to be rejected, at least four countries representing 35% of the bloc’s population must vote against.) But proposals for reform tend to be based on political consensus rather than formal votes, so the league still has influence. It has recruited other members to its cause. Slovakia also signed its paper on the sovereign bail-out fund in November, for instance. It might also hope to toughen Germany—whose cities helped found the medieval Hanseatic League, and which is seen as a silent partner of its modern namesake—in its talks with France.
On December 4th EU finance ministers approved further work on a version of Mr Macron’s budget plan. But, in a victory for the hawks, it is much watered down. It will focus on enhancing competitiveness and convergence, not stabilisation, and will sit within the existing EU budget rather than getting substantial new funds. Perhaps the clearest sign of the league’s success is that it has needled the French. In November Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, attacked it as “dangerous for Europe”. Its members reject the accusation that it represents a hardening of the divide between the north and south, saying it wants to be constructive. Agreeing on reforms was never going to be plain sailing.