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Eurozone crisis

Greek budget deficits vex EU finance ministers

After all-night negotiations, European finance ministers are still at odds regarding how - or even whether - to continue helping Greece. Their opinions will collide once more at this week's EU budget talks.

"Greece has delivered. Now it's up to us to deliver." With those words, Euro Group President Jean-Claude Juncker gave public recognition to Greek austerity efforts - and let European finance ministers know they should pay deference to Greece's efforts.

Yet a decision on a 30-billion euro ($38 billion) transfer to Greece as part of an ongoing bailout program is still up in the air. After nearly 12 hours of overnight negotiations Juncker was forced in the early hours of Wednesday (12.11.2012) to announce that the talks had failed for the time being.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble assessed things succinctly: "Since the questions were too complex we were unable to find a solution. That's why we're meeting again next Monday."

That makes twice now. On Monday of last week (November 12) the finance minister met with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and didn't make progress then, either.

Recession adds to debt repayment woes

An old man with gray hair and eyeglasses speaks to someone off-camera (Photo: A/OLIVIER HOSLET)

"We'll meet again on Monday," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble

The loan payment itself isn't the point of controversy. Instead it has to do with Greek budget deficits. Greece has been stuck in such a deep and prolonged recession that it will take longer for the country to become self-sustaining. But more time also means more money - money provided by countries that are supposed to believe in Greek prospects.

Before current deliberations, Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs and the euro, said it all depended on "doing away with the unclarity that's been hanging over Greece and the eurozone - and to also stimulate the kinds of investments that are so important for economic growth and employment in Europe."

Two budget deficits

In truth, there are two budgetary problems currently under discussion. The first is related to Greece's receiving a two-year extension - to 2016 - that would allow it more time to bring its annual budget deficit to 3 percent or less. To do so by 2014 would require more than 13 billion euros, and by 2016, 33 billion euros.

The second shortfall is related to Athens' receiving an extra two years - 2022 instead of 2020 - to reduce its outstanding public debt to a maximum of 120 percent of GDP. Euro countries appeared open to such a concession, yet last week Lagarde publicly opposed the move. She wants to stick to an earlier target for Greece to attain debt stability.

Schäuble declined to speak of a "conflict" between the two: "I have no disputes with the IMF. The IMF also has its own prerequisites for what is viable and what is not." Yet he also admitted that the issue hasn't been easy, "Otherwise, we wouldn't have had so many meetings."

Should taxpayers pitch in again?

A gray-haired woman wearing a white blazer and a black and white scarf steps out of a black automobile
(Photo: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET)

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has her eye on outstanding Greek debt

The question is always the same: Where should that extra money come from? Schäuble's French counterpart, Pierre Moscovici, recently voiced a warning.

"Everyone has to accept going further than they were prepared to," he said.

Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter, for example, is known for not wanting to go that extra step. She, too, made her preferences clear. "No new money," the minister said, since "it would be difficult to justify to our taxpayers." The German government would also find it difficult to add public monies to a third Greek bailout package.

Even to the countries meant to help Greece, a meaningful reduction in public debt is hardly thinkable. Yet Greece's desolate financial position and the Euro Group's wish to hold the currency union together at any price could mean that, over the long term, the unthinkable happens.

The EU Commission's Rehn has words of warning, "In the coming years we need to be prepared for further emergency sessions in order to ensure that Greece can adequately meet its debt obligations."

Such words fall easily from the lips of an EU commissioner. For national ministers, however, the issue is delicate. They hope to unequivocally avoid giving the impression that their own national purses are bottomless.

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