Germany and France have reached a common position on a second bailout of Greece in their effort to prevent the country’s debt crisis from spreading through Europe, officials said Thursday.
The accord came after seven hours of talks late into Wednesday night between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin, sources in both governments said.
Details of the common position were not revealed. European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet joined Merkel and Sarkozy for part of their talks.
The accord between the two most powerful states in the euro zone will now be presented to a crisis summit in Brussels on Thursday starting at 1100 GMT of all 17 leaders of the bloc, who are trying to prevent fears of a Greek debt default from poisoning access to the bond market for bigger states such as Italy and Spain.
The new bailout would supplement a 110 billion euro rescue plan for Greece launched in May last year. It is expected to include fresh emergency loans to Athens from euro zone governments and the International Monetary Fund, and possibly a range of other measures.
Worried about the impact on financial markets and wary of angering their own taxpayers, euro zone governments have struggled for several weeks to agree on major aspects of the plan, especially a contribution by private sector investors.
The euro rose moderately against the dollar in response to the Franco-German announcement, but markets may remain nervous until the details are revealed. Providing fresh money to Greece and arranging for commercial banks to participate could face legal and technical obstacles.
The head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, warned Wednesday the global economy would suffer if Europe could not summon the political will to act decisively on Greece.
“Nobody should be under any illusion: the situation is very serious. It requires a response, otherwise the negative consequences will be felt in all corners of Europe and beyond,» Barroso told a news conference.
Barroso said a solution to Greece’s problems must include steps to ensure the sustainability of Greek public finances, private sector involvement in funding for Athens, more flexible use of the euro zone’s bailout fund, repair of the region’s banking system, and liquidity to keep the Greek economy going.
It was not clear how many of these steps were included in the Franco-German accord.
Four competing proposals have been circulating for private sector involvement: a rollover of Greek government bonds as they mature, a swap of bonds for debt with longer maturities, a buy-back of Greek debt at a discount to its face value, and a tax on European banks.
Germany and France have been at odds on these proposals, with Berlin promoting a bond swap and France suggesting a rollover or a tax. The ECB has complicated the argument by opposing any step that might cause credit rating agencies to declare Greek debt in default; this would probably be the case for all proposals except the tax, which the banks hate.
German newspaper Bild, citing diplomatic sources, reported that top European commercial bankers including Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann and the head of a large French private bank would attend Thursday’s summit to discuss the private sector contribution.
The IMF, whose new head Christine Lagarde will also attend, has told euro zone leaders they should put more money into their bailout fund, the 440 billion euro European Financial Stability Facility, and let it buy government bonds of weak states on the secondary market. Investors also hope it will be permitted to extend precautionary credit lines to countries at risk.
But Germany previously blocked these steps and while a source close to euro zone talks told Reuters earlier this week the ideas were back on the table, there has been no clear sign that Berlin has changed its mind.
The steps would require changes in the EFSF’s rules that would have to be ratified by national parliaments, and could fall foul of critics in Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.
Regardless of the details of the Franco-German accord, Thursday’s summit is very unlikely to mark a complete resolution of the crisis, as Merkel herself acknowledged earlier this week.
Officials have estimated the private sector contribution may total only about 30 billion euros, a tiny amount compared to Greece’s 340 billion euro mountain of sovereign debt. So the second bailout may simply keep Greece afloat for a number of months before a tougher decision has to be made on writing off more of its debt.
In any case, many economists believe the only way out of the euro zone’s debt crisis in the long run may be closer integration of national fiscal policies — for example, a joint euro zone guarantee for countries’ bonds, or issuance of a joint euro zone bond to finance all countries.
Germany has firmly ruled out such steps, but Osborne said the second Greek bailout would only be a step toward a necessary fiscal union in the euro zone.