Eurogroup faces fresh Greek battle

Eurozone finance ministers meet Thursday with budget hardliners demanding more from Greece

00:00 June 22, 2012

Luxembourg: Eurozone finance ministers meet on Thursday with budget hardliners demanding more from Greece, Spain set to request a rescue of its banks, and Cyprus the latest victim of Europe's debt crisis.

As the two-year drama gathers pace, the Eurogroup meets in Luxembourg from 1400 GMT for a probable late-night battle on the Greek and Spanish fronts, as well as talks on Italy's soaring borrowing costs and a Cypriot cry for help.

The talks come on the eve of a mini-summit of the leaders of the eurozone's big four - Germany, France, Italy and Spain — in Rome, where they are expected to elaborate a plan for the eurozone rescue fund to intervene more easily on bond markets.

It was "a mystery" that governments had not yet opted to use the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to buy the bonds of the likes of Italy and Spain to relieve them of market pressure, Benoit Coeure, a member of the European Central Bank's executive board, told the Financial Times.

The pressure intensified against Spain on Thursday as the interest demanded by investors soared in a new bond sale, leaping to 4.706 per cent for two-year bonds, more than double the rate charged in a March sale.

But Madrid showed it can still tap the market at a pivotal time, with the Treasury raising €2.22 billion despite a eurozone rescue loan of up to €100 billion ($125 billion) in the works and fears mounting that a state bailout could follow.

The Spanish government was due to release at 1530 GMT two audits of the banks, one from the German firm Roland Berger, the other from the US firm Oliver Wyman, upon which the size of the banking rescue will depend.

With those audits in hand, Spain was to officially request a banking sector rescue at the eurozone meeting.

Thursday's talks, which will widen the next day to include the finance ministers of Britain and other non-euro states in another tough fight over calls to introduce a tax on financial transactions, are part of a marathon series leading up to a full European Union summit next week.

By Thursday and Friday next week, the eurozone is expected to have agreed the short- and long-term shape of a banking or financial union and steps towards closer political integration that economists see as essential to getting to the root of the debt crisis.

The United States, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have all urged greater banking integration in Europe, as the debt crisis boomerangs from financial sectors to sovereigns.

As ever, Greece looks set to dominate talks, a day after conservative leader Antonis Samaras was sworn in as prime minister of a pro-euro coalition government bent on negotiating changes to its own bailout programme.

Greece prepared Thursday to name a coalition government to renegotiate its onerous EU-IMF bailout terms, with Greek news reports saying the country will be represented at the Eurogroup by outgoing finance minister George Zannias.

His successor will reportedly be the chairman of the country's biggest bank, National Bank of Greece, Vassilis Rapanos, a former economics professor who served in the economy ministry when Greece joined the euro in 2001.

Germany, the Netherlands and Finland are again playing tough on Greece.

While willing to bend on some of the roads taken, they are likely to insist that the destination remain the same: the key bailout terms and conditions agreed in March after months of bickering.

Thomas Wieser, who chairs preparations for the Eurogroup meetings, told AFP in an interview that the choice facing currency partners was stark.

Either you "stick to the fiscal targets and then you need additional measures" from Greece, the Brussels-based official said, or you change deadlines, in which case "you need extra money."

Wieser, who chairs preparations for politically-charged meetings of the Eurogroup, said a deal worth €130 billion ($165 billion) in new loans agreed in March was no longer workable.

"The economic environment has turned out to be even worse than assumed," he said, warning that by August, the 17-nation eurozone and the IMF will have to "seriously re-negotiate how to get the thing back on track."

Cyprus is also set to seek eurozone aid for its ailing banks, probably next week, after securing a separate bilateral loan from Russia, an EU diplomat said Wednesday.

The debt crisis caused further damage to the eurozone economy as a key survey, the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) compiled by research firm Markit, found that private sector activity fell to its lowest level for three years in the second quarter.

"The downturn is gathering pace and spreading across the region," said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson.