Europe fights to save Greece debt talks

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem was working overtime Friday to save a make-or-break meeting on Greece’s demand to ease its bailout programme as Germany insisted it stick with its austerity commitments.

After days of sharp exchanges, the 19 euro zone finance ministers gathered for the third time in little over a week to consider Athens’ take-it or leave-it proposal to extend an EU loan programme which expires this month.

“I do not have to tell you it’s quite complicated ... there is still reason for some optimism but it is very difficult,” Dijsselbloem, who is also Dutch finance minister, said of a Greece-Germany stand-off before the official start of talks later Friday.

“I will now go back to try to get the show back on the road,” he said.

Greek official sources said Dijsselbloem, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and EU Economics Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici were shuttling between Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his determined German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble in an effort to find common ground.

“The officials are talking alternatively with the Greek and German ministers,” one of the Greek sources told AFP, adding that the unusual set-up reflected “the difficulties to make the two men agree.”

“The discussions are on a new package of concessions” beyond those contained in the Greek letter sent Thursday seeking a six-month extension to its bailout programme which expires this month.

Arriving for the talks, Varoufakis said he hoped for a deal, given the effort made by Athens.

“The Greek government has gone not the extra mile but an extra ten miles and now we are expecting our partners to meet us not half way, but one fifth of the way,” he said.

MERKEL, HOLLANDE URGE ACCORD

Schaeuble on Thursday rejected the Greek request out of hand but a lengthy phone call between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to calm the waters.

Meeting in Paris Friday with French President Francois Hollande, Merkel said the German position “since the beginning of the Greek programme” had been that Greece remain in the euro.

Berlin “would do everything to continue along this path,” she said.

Hollande added: “Greece is in the euro zone. Greece has to stay in the euro zone.”

The Merkel-Tsipras call came after a Greek government source released a document said to outline Berlin’s defiant stance at lower-level talks Thursday.

Greece’s proposal “is not clear at all... a Trojan horse, intending to get bridge financing and in substance putting an end to the current programme,” the German statement said, according to the source.

PERSONALITY CLASH

Time is pressing to find a solution before the current bailout programme ends, for fear that failure could see Greece run out of money and be forced out of the euro zone within weeks.

A top European official said the stand-off had come down to a clash of personalities with Schaeuble furious at the negotiating style of the casual and fast-talking Varoufakis.

The issues go beyond that, however, and echo a divisive debate in the European Union whether the austerity policies adopted to cope with the debt crisis have done more harm than good.

For Germany, fiscal discipline and tight spending controls are the only basis for the sustainable growth needed to deliver much-needed jobs.

For France and Italy, led by left-wing governments, easing up on austerity is essential to give them the leeway to borrow to boost growth.

Against this backdrop, a European diplomatic source said there would be no agreement Friday, with Schaeuble unwilling to give way on such an important point of principle.

GREEK CONCESSIONS

In its request, Greece offered some major concessions including a return, if not in name, of the hated “troika” mission of creditors that has overseen Athens’s finances through two bailouts.

Tsipras insists he can satisfy both the demands of Greece’s partners and meet a promise to voters to end the detested austerity conditions which he says destroyed the economy.

“The government... is not asking for an extension to the memorandum,” an official source in Athens said, referring to the reform agreement between Greece and the troika – the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund creditors.

Instead, it wants an extension to the loan part of the mammoth 240-billion-euro (S$370-billion) rescue that came with commitments to push through austerity and deep reforms.

Germany says this distinction is unacceptable and Greece has to accept the austerity commitments of the full programme.