European debt crisis: Greek bailout talks are complicated by looming deadline

ATHENS — As European leaders haggled Wednesday over how and whether to keep Greece from spinning into uncontrolled bankruptcy next month, one factor was not negotiable: the sheer passage of time, which is complicating efforts to ease Greece’s debts.

With each day, the plans to relieve the debts grow more difficult to pull off by the end of March, when Greece faces a mammoth payment that it cannot meet without help. Acknowledging the uncertainty, European finance officials discussed Wednesday night the possibility of delaying the bailout until after Greek elections scheduled for April and helping Greece make its $19 billion payment in the meantime, according to an official briefed on the talks, which were held by conference call.

But after the call, a top European official said that the bailout deal could be approved Monday.

Finance ministers will be able to “take all the necessary decisions” when they meet on Monday, Luxembourg President Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the euro-zone caucus of countries, told reporters in Brussels.

With greater assurance that Europe is willing to loan Greece $170 billion to pay off its debts, private investors would be more willing to write off up to 70 percent of the face value of their Greek bonds, a key step in getting Greece’s debt down to 120 percent of the size of its yearly economic output by 2020. Officials consider that a more sustainable level.

But the tricky process of writing down the debt costs money and time. Once the terms of the voluntary write-down are announced, Greece will have to wait almost two weeks for bondholders to come forward and offer up their holdings. If not enough volunteer, Greece will have to pass legislation that ropes in investors, which could take more time.

Parallel to this, Europe will have to raise more than $100 billion to fuel the exchange, which itself requires the approval of several countries’ parliaments.

All the while, the last-chance, end-of-grace-period deadline for the bond payment — March 27 — will draw closer.

“This particular deal, the way it’s designed, you need an agreement on Monday,” said a German official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We could have had a deal almost three weeks ago if the Greek side had delivered.”

On Wednesday, the leaders of Greece’s two main political parties provided written assurances to European officials that they would hold to the painful terms of the bailout even after the election. They also said they had found $177 million in additional cuts that would spare the deepest damage to their pension system. Those were key demands from European officials for a bailout.

But the likely winner of the election, Antonis Samaras, head of the center-right New Democracy party, allowed himself some wiggle room in his letter.

“We will remain committed to the Program’s objectives, targets and key policies,” he wrote, leaving open the room for “modifications.”


A female employee of the state-owned Labour Housing Organization sits on the ledge of the company's building as she allegedly threatens to jump, in Athens, on Wednesday, after the government decided to shut down the organization and lay off its staff. Greece is under pressure from the EU and the IMF to reduce state spending in order to qualify for loans and avert a debt default in March. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Juncker said Wednesday that before any money would be handed over, the euro zone would have to set up better ways of making sure Greece lives up to its word, a sign of how little trust remains in the country’s actions.

“Who is making sure that Greece will stand by what we’re now agreeing with Greece?” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Wednesday on SWR2 radio.

Both sides have practiced brinkmanship in the two years that Greece has been dependent on bailouts to keep its finances running. But more European officials appear willing to contemplate not just the possibility that Greece could quit the euro currency but also that the rest of Europe could survive it.

“In the euro area, there are plenty who don’t want us anymore,” Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told reporters in Athens before the conference call Wednesday. “There are some playing with fire, domestically and abroad.”

Some analysts said there may yet be some flexibility in the bailout, as long as Europe is willing to pay a higher price for it.

“There’s always a way to buy some time,” said Nicolas Veron, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “A deal is on the table, and the alternatives are worse.”

Adding to Europe’s worries, Iran threatened Wednesday to cut off oil exports to several European countries ahead of a European Union boycott of Iranian oil scheduled to begin in July. Greece is a major oil importer from Iran, although E.U. officials said they had sufficient reserves to weather any early cutoff.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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