The European Union has agreed new rules that will cap bankers' bonuses, blamed by critics for helping to drive the global financial crisis but also defended as crucial for the smooth working of the banking system.
The European Parliament and the EU's current Irish presidency agreed early Thursday how to implement Basel III, an internationally-agreed set of regulations which tighten capital requirements in the hope of preventing any repeat of the 2008 banking collapse.
The accord means that "for the first time in the history of EU financial market regulation, we will cap bankers' bonuses," said MEP Othmar Karas, the negotiator for the parliament.
Parliament had wanted to limit any bonus to not more than a banker's fixed annual salary but agreed it could be twice the size, on the condition that shareholders formally approved such a payment. In this case, a quarter of the bonus would also be deferred for at least five years.
Bonuses, paid either as cash, shares or both, are very volatile but can be many times a banker's fixed annual salary, leading to charges they encouraged the risk taking that left the banks over-extended and desperately short of funds in 2008.
Earlier this month for example, Barclays chief Antony Jenkins said he would give up his 2012 bonus -- estimated at 1.0 million pounds (1.2 million euros) -- after the bank was fined for helping rig money market interest rates.
In June, Stephen Hester, the head of Royal Bank of Scotland which was nationalised by the British government to prevent its collapse, waived his bonus for a second year.
Basel III was supposed to have been implemented from January this year but the timetable slipped steadily as the banks and some EU member states, especially Britain, baulked at the new rules, saying they would undercut management incentives and make the banks reluctant to lend.
Basel III notably requires the banks to build up their capital buffers and reserves but in doing so, they argue, they have less money left to lend to businesses now struggling in a deep economic slump.
Karas played down the importance of the bonus issue but it attracts most of the headlines and is particularly sensitive for Britain, home to one of the world's biggest financial markets in London.
The key issue is "that from 2014, European banks will have to set aside more money to be more stable and concentrate on their core business, namely financing the real economy, that of small- and medium-sized enterprises and jobs," Karas insisted.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday he would "look carefully" at the deal, staunchly defending London's role and arguing that his own plans for bank reform were in some respects tougher than those in the EU.
"We have major international banks that are based in the UK but have branches and activities all over the world. We need to make sure regulation put in place in Brussels is flexible enough to allow those banks to be competing and succeeding while being located in the UK," he warned.
More bluntly, London Mayor Boris Johnson lambasted the accord, saying that Britons would wonder "why we stay in the EU if it persists in such transparently self-defeating policies."
"Brussels cannot set pay for bankers" and if it attempts to do so, it will only see them take their business elsewhere, to New York, Singapore or Zurich, Johnson said.
Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said the accord -- applicable to all EU banks and their employees wherever they work -- will bolster the banking system and financial stability as a whole while the restrictions on bonuses will curb excessive risk-taking.
"During the financial crisis, European taxpayers had to recapitalise banks. This overhaul ... will make sure that banks in the future have enough capital ... to withstand shocks. This will ensure that taxpayers across Europe are protected into the future," Noonan said in a statement.
The accord "includes restrictions on bankers pay to make sure that pay practices do not lead to excessive risk-taking," he noted.
Thursday's deal will now be submitted for approval to EU finance ministers meeting next week, with further negotiations expected to be very tough ahead of a full parliament vote expected in April.