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Europe mulls handing back reins of reform to Athens

By John O'Donnell & Renee Maltezou

Brussels is considering scrapping the troika that supervises Greek reforms to allow Athens to pursue its own plan to bolster the economy in return for a drip-feed of debt relief, European officials say.

The discussion, still in its early stages, will gather pace as Greece and its eurozone backers chart a new course for the country with its second European bailout program due to end later in 2014.

Dismantling the troika, a trio made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund and likened by some in Greece to the German Nazi occupation, would likely be central to the new plan for Athens.

After Ireland and Portugal exited bailouts earlier this year, the EU/IMF inspectorate is now only active with Greece and Cyprus and many experts have expected Athens to require further help.

Switching to a "reform-for-debt-relief" scheme with lighter supervision could sooth public frustration and help bolster the coalition government at the expense of far-left opponent Syriza, which has promised to tear up Greece's international bailout agreement and is leading in the polls.

National elections could come as early as next year and a Syriza-led government would present a headache for the eurozone.

Under the latest thinking, policing by the troika could be replaced by a special task force from the European Commission with biannual check-ups rather than every three months, provided Greece does not require fresh funds.

In return, Athens would commit to a six-year plan of reform, where milestones would be rewarded with debt relief, such as extending the time for repayment, rather than granting additional loans.

"There would be no troika," said one official familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named.

"There must be Greek ownership of reform. The Greeks have until October to come up with a program, which would be decided by December for the start of 2015."

As a fall-back, Greece could be given a precautionary line of credit from the eurozone, a second official said. If it was used, stricter supervision of Greece would resume.

The IMF would meanwhile continue its own bailout program until 2016, continuing to exert influence on Athens.

"It was a mistake not to give Portugal a precautionary credit line, the official said, referring to Lisbon's conclusion of its bailout without such back-up. You couldn't make the same mistake with Greece."

Scrapping the troika would mark the end of a model of enforcing economic reform in Athens that many in Greece and the European Parliament have criticized as heavy handed.

A crucial review of Greece's bailout by the troika will begin with talks in Paris in September after Athens argued that lengthy audits in the Greek capital hurt the country's morale.

Crucially, the new Greek program would be dubbed one for 'growth and employment' instead of having a focus on budget savings. It would be drafted in the first instance by Athens rather than officials in Brussels or elsewhere.

One potential benefit of the Greeks owning their own program could be to get acceptance at home for economic reforms, if they are not seen to be imposed from outside.

The launch of the new six-year plan would allow the European Central Bank, where policymakers believe its new function as bank supervisor would rule out a role in the troika, to quit.

In order to be workable, however, such a scheme would need to overcome obstacles.

For one, if Athens needed fresh money, were the cost of supporting its banks to rise for example, it could require a fully-fledged bailout.

"If extra public money is required, there is not a single parliament in Europe that would approve it," said the first official.

Officials in Athens are hopeful another bailout can be avoided.

"We don't want a new austerity program. We don't want new money, one senior Greek government official told Reuters. We want any alternative to be growth-and-employment oriented.

"We are committed to reforms ... but we don't want a knife to our neck because this hurts the ownership of these reforms," said the official, adding that the idea of staggered debt relief for reform could work so long as the monitoring 'has no similarities' to the troika.

As well as appealing to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, such a "reform-for-debt-relief" scheme is likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker.

The pair met in Athens on Monday.

Were Juncker to help dismantle the troika, he would help Samaras in his tussle with Syriza. Early elections could be hastened if Samaras fails to win enough support among Greek lawmakers for his candidate in presidential elections.

President Karolos Papoulias' term ends in March 2015.

The final question is how to make Greece's 320-billion-euro-plus debt mountain ($430 billion), which equates to roughly 175 percent of the country's entire annual economic output, more manageable.

The main options for granting debt relief revolve around lowering the cost of borrowing for Greece or extending the time it has to repay, officials with knowledge of the matter said.

Such concessions would likely apply only to those loans granted by euro zone countries, which account for more than half of the debt pile. Bonds or loans in the hands of the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund would not be affected.

"There is quite a difference if you have 30 years to repay or 50," said one official, adding that the extension could be rolled out to different tranches of debt as soon as key reforms were made.

Fixing a low interest rate for Greek debt over this longer period could also be used as an additional incentive since eurozone rates are now at record lows and will inevitably rise over years to come.

The crunch time for these decisions will be later this year, said another eurozone official. "The Autumn will be hot."

[Reuters]

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