Germany will back Greek aid, wary of hints at haircut

German lawmakers are likely to approve the release of Greek aid immediately despite suspicions that talks on a debt write-down have just been delayed until after Germany’s 2013 elections.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) said on Tuesday that the Greek deal agreed overnight would be put to the vote in the Bundestag lower house on Thursday or Friday.

With both sides voicing support, approval is guaranteed but the question will be whether the chancellor can rely on her coalition or needs the votes of the SPD and Greens.

They want to help Greece but will exploit any chance to embarrass Merkel ahead of elections in September 2013, when she will seek a third term in office.

SPD parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his party would not do anything “that could lead to Greece becoming unable to make its payments in the short term or could force it to leave the euro zone.”

But he accused German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public, which might accept granting already-agreed aid tranches but would not easily support a second write-down of Greek public debt.

“Mr Schaeuble brags to his own bloc that a debt haircut has been avoided but I tell you it has just been postponed to after the Bundestag elections,” he told German TV, adding that euro zone ministers had made “cryptic hints” to this effect.

Greece’s international lenders finally reached a deal on a package of measures to reduce Greek debt by 40 billion euros, cutting it to 124 percent of gross domestic product by 2020.

They also committed to taking further steps to cut Greece’s debt to “significantly below 110 percent” in 2022, the most explicit recognition so far that some write-off of loans may be necessary from 2016, the point when Greece is forecast to reach a primary budget surplus.

The SPD is not against writing off Greek debt but Steinmeier said Schaeuble should not pretend it was still taboo.

Schaeuble said euro zone ministers had unanimously rejected calls for a new Greek haircut but he told a news conference that Germany’s legal objections to such a write-down might no longer hold once Greece reached a sustainable primary surplus.

This was not the reading of conservatives like Michael Meister, deputy leader of her Christian Democrats (CDU) in the Bundestag, or Gerda Hasselfelt from the CSU, their Bavarian sister party.

“I do not see a public sector haircut as being part of this deal,” said Meister. “I don’t expect this position to change in 2016, or later than that. Otherwise we will have to decide not to pay out the funds to Greece.”

Greece will get up to 43.7 billion euros in stages as it fulfils the conditions set by Europe and by the International Monetary Fund – whose share will only be paid out once a Greek debt buy-back has been carried out.

Steinmeier said the IMF’s apparent caution contributed to the uncertainty, while Schaeuble himself only said he was “relatively confident” that the debt buy-back would work.

Merkel’s conservatives and their Free Democrat (FDP) junior partners include a small band who routinely rebel against euro zone bailouts in the Bundestag. Nowhere near numerous enough to defeat Merkel, they can however cause her embarrassment.

“The chancellor does not technically need her own majority but it is an important signal,” said one senior CDU lawmaker.

“However, the number of rebels has not grown in the past six months.”

FDP whip Rainer Bruederle backed the Greek package, saying: “There is a danger with all these measures that they set a precedent. But Greece is an extreme special case.”

German indignation at continued demands for Greek aid has abated since Merkel’s visit to Athens in October, when she was impressed by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ determination to tackle his country’s structural spending problems.

But the conservative media is always quick to tap into the underlying vein of resentment among German taxpayers at having to bail out euro zone countries less frugal than themselves.

“Greeks Get 44 Billion Euros,” was the headline of the top-selling Bild daily. It asked online readers what they thought of more Greek aid: “NO and once again NO!” responded a reader identifying himself as Frank Mergner.

“Athens can breathe again,” said the Spiegel magazine’s online site, adding that euro zone ministers’ ambitious Greek debt-reduction targets “will clearly lead to a debt haircut in the medium term – even if such a step was rejected on Monday.” [Reuters]

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