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Weak euro countries plead for help

By Gabriele Steinhauser

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 11 2011 7:10 a.m. MST

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, speaks with Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite, left, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, second left, Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus, right, and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, second right, during a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels on Friday, March 11, 2011. European Union nations are putting French President Nicolas Sarkozy under pressure even before his arrival at Friday's EU summit, complaining he was out of line to give a Libyan opposition group diplomatic recognition before any joint action could be discussed.

Virginia Mayo, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — The eurozone's weakest states on Friday pleaded for more help from their richer neighbors at a summit in Brussels, where leaders worked to thrash out a "comprehensive response" to the crippling debt crisis by the end of the month.

Markets remain unconvinced that countries like Greece, the crisis' first victim, will become financially self-sufficiant anytime soon, despite a long series of brutal austerity measures.

"We are on track with our program, we have taken the pain to make our economy more viable," said George Papandreou, the prime minister of Greece, as he arrived in Brussels. "But now we need European decisions, strong European decisions to calm the market."

In his call for more assistance and understanding Papandreou was joined by newly elected Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. "I've come here with two days in government with a very strong mandate from the Irish people for an improvement in the terms of the EU-IMF deal," Kenny told journalists, referring to the country's €67.5 billion ($93 billion) bailout funded by the International Monetary Fund and other EU countries.

Meanwhile, Portugal — seen by many as the next most likely candidate for an international rescue — announced additional tax increases and moneysaving measures to convince other eurozone states that it is doing its part to survive the crisis.

The pleas by now have a familiar ring. More than a year into the debt crisis, Europe still faces much the same problems as a year ago — except that after endless promises, negotiations, and two bailouts, jittery markets now appear at the end of their tether.

Greece and Ireland are reeling from the effects of steep budget cuts, while Portugal and much larger Spain are scrambling to avoid a similar fate. The governments of fiscally strong states like Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, meanwhile, are reluctant to put up more money as pressure from their taxpayers grows.

While the negotiations go on, anxious investors have been driving funding costs for weak eurozone states to new record highs and are questioning how the eurozone's stragglers will ever garner the necessary economic growth to pay off their massive bills.

They are demanding new measures from governments to tackle the crisis that go beyond massive bailouts. They have set their hopes on an overhaul of the eurozone's €750 billion ($1 trillion) rescue fund that could see it start buying bonds on the open market or extend short-term liquidity to countries facing unexpected costs, such as big bank bailouts.

But at Friday's get-together — an important stopover ahead of the decisive EU summit on March 24-25 — those demands face an uphill battle.

The leaders are expected to commit to keeping labor costs and public deficits in check to make their economies more competitive and their government finances more sustainable. They also will discuss lowering the interest rates on Ireland's bailout and giving Greece more time to pay back its €110 billion ($152 billion) rescue loan.

But Germany, the eurozone's biggest economy, has ruled out a broad expansion of the powers of the €750 billion ($1 trillion) rescue fund. Using the bailout money just to stabilize markets or buy up government bonds is "out of the question," a German government official said Thursday. He declined to be named in line with department policy.

Another important point is whether the eurozone is prepared to boost its portion of the overall fund so it can actually lend out the advertised €440 billion. But that also is far from being resolved. At the moment, the so-called European Financial Stability Facility, which is supplemented by loans from the IMF and the European Commission, can only lend out about €250 billion, since governments had to over-guaratee their contributions to get a good credit rating for the facility.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm only going to consider boosting guarantees if I know for sure that transferring money from north to south Europe will stop because we can nail down the stability pact," said Dutch Premier Mark Rutte, referring to the EU's often flouted stability and growth pact, which limits public debts and deficits. "If we can't agree on that, it is not possible for the Netherlands to even think about raising the guarantees."

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