Eurozone faces crunch week in debt crisis

by Roland Lloyd Parry, Agence France Presse

Posted at Jul 17 2011 08:14 PM | Updated as of Jul 18 2011 04:14 AM

PARIS - Eurozone countries must settle their debt crisis at an emergency summit this week to stop Greece toppling into default and dragging bigger euro economies into deeper trouble.

After finance ministers failed to clinch a new rescue package for Greece last Monday, stocks and the euro tumbled. Analysts warned a Greek debt default could infect Italy, the third-biggest eurozone economy, and Spain, the fourth-biggest.

"The policymakers' continued dithering appears to be pulling both Spain and Italy further into the crisis," wrote analysts at financial consultancy Capital Economics.

"Either they stop fiddling and take decisive action or they may soon have to start contemplating the unthinkable."

"It is time for Europe to wake up," said Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in an interview published Sunday in the Greek daily Kathimerini.

EU president Herman Van Rompuy said the summit on July 21 will focus on "the financial stability of the euro area as a whole and the future financing of the Greek programme."

The EU and International Monetary Fund bailed out Greece in May 2010 with a package worth 110 billion euros ($160 billion) in exchange for a series of drastic austerity measures to stabilize its public finances.

Greece is still in serious difficulty and needs another bailout valued at around the same amount. Its debt has exploded to over 350 billion euros and market hostility has kept it from raising fresh loans.

Ireland and Portugal have also had to be bailed out, while Italy and Spain are seen to be at risk due to the strained state of their public finances.

Italy's parliament on Friday passed a 48-billion-euro austerity budget aimed at slashing the public deficit by 2014.

Eurozone leaders are now considering ways to buy up Greek debt to take the short-term pressure off Greece. A key sticking point is what the role of private lenders in this restructuring might be.

Greeks have fought in the streets against Papandreou's austerity measures which cut pensions and salaries. Key EU player Germany is now pushing for Greek banks to help shoulder the burden of a second bailout scheme.

Critics of this plan, including the European Central Bank, warn that if banks are seen to be forced to lend to Greece on more favorable terms, markets would interpret this as an effective default and panic would escalate.

EU officials have also mooted a convoluted plan to lend Greece money with which it can buy back its own debt at a reduced price on secondary bond markets, effectively postponing its repayments to give it breathing space.

This money would come from a special eurozone bailout pot, the European Financial Stability Fund.

Market tension was heightened last week by the release of the results of "stress-tests" on European banks, which diagnosed eight European banks as unstable.

Critics said the test was not tough enough since it not include the possibility of a sovereign debt default by a country such as Greece.

Meanwhile markets are anxiously watching a row in Washington between US President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents in Congress who reject his plans to raise the country's debt limit to allow more US borrowing.

The government has warned that failure to reach a deal could plunge the world's richest economy into a debt default.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Athens on Sunday to offer support for the Greek government in the crisis.

"There is not a direct US role in this," said a US diplomat who asked not to be named. "But we certainly have a major stake in the outcome."