Markus Schreiber, Associated Press
BRUSSELS — The 17 countries that use the euro are debating building up their new rescue fund to its full €500 billion ($670 billion) capacity faster than originally planned as part of a broader effort to beef up the currency union's financial firewalls.
The European Stability Mechanism will have a capital base of €80 billion, paid in by eurozone governments. This €80 billion — together with €620 billion in a form of payment guarantees from the member governments — can then be used to raise up to €500 billion on financial markets and with banks.
Under current plans, the countries' capital payments into the fund would be spread out until 2015. Two installments worth a total of €32 billion would be paid in this year, while the remaining €48 billion would come in three annual €16 billion slices.
That would mean that, when it comes into force in July, the ESM would only be capable of lending out some €200 billion in new rescue loans.
But two European Union officials said Wednesday that the eurozone is now debating to also make two payments next year, with the final one coming in 2014, instead of 2015. Under that scenario, the ESM could hand out around €400 billion in loans by next year and the full €500 billion loan capacity would be reached by 2014.
The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks ahead of a meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Friday in Copenhagen, when are final decision is expected.
Europe's currency union is under pressure from other large countries like the United States and China to beef up their defenses against a debt crisis that has been brooding for more than two years.
Although financial markets have calmed down in recent weeks, the U.S. and others are worried that renewed turmoil may sweep across other parts of the world and put an end to a burgeoning economic recovery.
At the center of their concerns are Italy and Spain, the eurozone's number four and three economies, whose funding costs — although lower than just two months ago — are widely seen as unsustainable in the long run.
The pressure to build up bigger financial firewalls comes as the eurozone is trying to figure out how to move from its interim bailout fund, the €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility that was set up hastily in May 2010, to the permanent, €500 billion ESM.
The EFSF has already committed almost €200 billion to the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The question now is how the eurozone plans to deal with both the loans that have already been given out and the money that is left in the EFSF.
Last year, eurozone leaders decided that total lending of the EFSF and the ESM together could never exceed €500 billion. That means that even once the full ESM capital has been built up, only some €300 billion would remain — way too little to effectively help large countries like Italy and Spain, which together have debts of more than €2.5 trillion.
Global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development want to the eurozone to have financial buffers of at least €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) — a position that is also backed by the U.S.
"The Americans are calling someone up almost every day," one of the EU officials said, referring to different European capitals.
But Germany is reluctant to commit too much money to saving weaker neighbors, arguing it would discourage those countries from cutting costs and reforming their economies.
The eurozone's biggest economy also warns that large spending on the rescue funds could raise questions over the ability of some governments to actually come up with the money if bailed-out countries fall behind on their loans.
"It is regrettable that apparently no figure is ever high enough in this discussion," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said of the OECD's request for a €1 trillion firewall. "The result of such proposals ... is unfortunately that markets are unsettled again and again."
In a partial concession, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this week that she would be open to letting the €200 billion in old bailout loans run separately from the €500 billion, which would effectively lift overall lending to some €700 billion.
The big remaining question — apart from the ESM capital payments — is how to deal with the €240 billion left in the EFSF. Merkel indicated that the EFSF could run until July 2013, as had been planned when it was set up, but did not say what should happen to the remaining money.
The European Commission and several euro countries want the remaining money to be included in the ESM, but the two officials aid that option had almost no chance of passing at the finance ministers' meeting.
A compromise would see the remaining €240 billion run on until July next year, providing a sort of buffer until the ESM's capital has been built up further.
But that would still fall far short off the €1 trillion favored by much of the rest of the world and raises questions of whether big non-eurozone economies will agree next month to send more money to the IMF. The Washington-based fund has asked for $500 billion in new resources so it can effectively help struggling economies over the coming years. The eurozone has already promised $200 billion.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.