Greece faces intense pressure to break bailout deadlock

Greece faced intense pressure Thursday from its international creditors to break a deadlock in its bailout talks that has raised the specter of the country’s imminent bankruptcy and even its exit from the euro.

As finance ministers from the 19-country eurozone headed into a meeting along with the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, optimism was in short supply. Greece was told it could not delay its debt repayment to the IMF on June 30 and that its creditors were looking at a plan B — code for a Greek exit from the euro.

Officials acknowledged that a so-called “Grexit” was now being discussed and that contingency plans were being made. As fears of a potential Grexit have swelled, there have been signs that Greeks are withdrawing money from their banks in ever-increasing amounts.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the eurozones top official, was pessimistic about the meeting and insisted Greece has to take “further steps” for there to be a lasting deal.

“It needs to hold up in the coming years to be credible,” he said.

With no one predicting a deal on Thursday, there’s speculation that the negotiations will be passed onto eurozone leaders over the next few days.

“I think it will be a preliminary discussion to a longer political discussion at the heads of state and government,” said Michael Noonan, Ireland’s finance minister.

Noonan, whose own country had to be bailed out in 2010 after a banking crisis, said he doubted thered be any contagion effects from a Greek euro exit, but that the Irish government was leaving nothing to chance.

“We’ve had the conversations at a high level (in Ireland),” he said. “We’re watching the situation and were taking advice from the European Central Bank … The option is to prepare the B plan.”

Greece’s radical left-led government has been locked in discussions with international creditors since its election in January over what economic reforms and budget cuts it needs to make to get the remaining 7.2 billion euros ($8.2 billion) available in its bailout fund. It needs the money to pay upcoming debts — first and foremost 1.6 billion euros due to the IMF at the end of the month.

That payment to the IMF is not up for negotiation, the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, said.

“There is no period of grace of one or two months as I have read here and there,” she said. “It’s due on June 30.”

The Greek government wants an end to the budget austerity measures that have accompanied the country’s bailout loans for five years. It has also been seeking some sort of restructuring of the country’s sky-high debt burden, which stands at near 180 percent of annual GDP. That could take the form of lower interest rates on the debt or extending the date by which the debts have to be repaid.

Dijsselbloem said the eurozone remains by its 2012 commitment to “consider further measures and assistance” for Greece, but only if Greece enacts its reform promises.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis declined to specify whether he would present fresh proposals Thursday to break the impasse, but said he hoped his “ideas” would meet with favor.

“The purpose is to replace costly discord with effective consensus,” he said.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said the “differences can be overcome” and that “the differences are not as great as people say.”

The blame game over the impasse in Greeces talks has gotten louder in recent days, with both sides claiming they’ve gone a long way to secure a deal. Greece has been adamant it won’t back any deal that cuts pensions while European officials say they’ve made compromises by, for example, dropping a budget surplus target from 3 percent of GDP to 1 percent this year.

The stalemate has become an increasing concern in financial markets as investors fret about the potential implications of a Greek exit from the euro.

Greeces main stock index was down 0.3 percent, having earlier traded lower. The Stoxx 50 index of leading European shares was down 0.6 percent.

Russia visit

While the talks were ongoing in Luxembourg, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was traveling to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin — a visit that has prompted speculation Greece could be seeking Russian loans.

Asked whether Russia is going to offer Tsipras money, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said he “cannot comment on specific decisions.”

Ahead of the eurozone meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it’s up to leaders in Athens to show the will to reach a deal.

She said Greece’s government in February committed itself to big reforms: “These must now be tackled with determination.”

Germany’s efforts, she insisted, are directed to Greece “remaining in the eurozone” and that an agreement was “still possible.”

Since Greece was locked out of international bond markets in the spring of 2010, it has relied on bailout funds from its partners in the eurozone and the IMF. In return for the 240 billion euros in loans, the country has had to make deep spending cuts and tax increases as well as economic reforms.

Tsipras’ SYRIZA party was elected on a promise to end such austerity, which it blames for the calamitous state of the Greek economy. Barring a modest recovery in 2014, the Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter since its financial crisis began, while unemployment and poverty have increased dramatically. [AP]

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