Simon Wren-Lewis has a nice post here. The whole situation makes you wonder whether, despite all the ECB’s talk of independence, there is a major Western central bank more subject to political constraints anywhere in the world.
I would add a couple of points.
First, the ECB and the rest of us are fixated on what will fly politically in Germany; but there are 16 other member states in the Eurozone, and not all of them are as pliable as little, eager-to-please Ireland. In particular, I have always thought that there were two reasons to avoid having Italy enter a bailout programme: not just the fact that EFSF/ESM won’t have enough money, but the fact that if this happens, Italy may decide to leave EMU. The reason why economists like Paul de Grauwe have been asking for ECB intervention is so that an Italian bailout becomes unnecessary; now it seems that Italy will only get ECB intervention if it enters a bailout programme. The whole thing seems upside down, and people are playing with fire here. Despite its large debts, Italy wouldn’t be having these difficulties on the market if it wasn’t in EMU: to ask a big, important country with a sense of its own dignity to give up sovereignty — and potentially enter the same death spiral as Greece, and now apparently Spain — simply so that it can remain in a single currency that isn’t working seems like a bit of a stretch to me.
Second, I agree with Simon that the ECB’s worrying about the moral hazard facing states like Italy in a situation like this is pretty stupid. (I would add that it is also wrong because it mixes up fiscal and monetary policy. Let the ECB stick to monetary policy, and let governments, individually and collectively, stick to fiscal policy.) But in our dysfunctional, destructive monetary union it may indeed be politically necessary for the ECB to insist on fiscal policy conditionality before doing the job of a central bank. Forcing Italy into a bailout programme seems like a particularly dangerous way of doing this, however.
There is a better way I think. The IMF is signaling that Spain and Italy are doing all that could be reasonably asked of them right now. Surely if the IMF is willing to certify that a country is running a sensible fiscal policy, this should be enough to allow the ECB to do what needs to be done?
UPDATE: Francesco Giavazzi is quoted here as making an obvious and very important point: for an unelected technocrat like Monti to steer Italy into a bailout programme, with the consequent loss of sovereignty that would be involved, prior to elections, would be unacceptable.