BRUSSELS — European Union leaders cautioned Wednesday that talks with Greece over its demands to ease its bailout loans will be tough, though the country's new prime minister was upbeat about a possible solution.
With all Europe waiting to see how Greece proposes to renegotiate its massive bailout loans, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister are on a whirlwind tour of the region to discuss possible solutions.
Tsipras wants easier terms of repayment on the 240 billion euros (currently $271 billion) in bailout loans and to relax the austerity budget measures the country has been required to make.
"I'm very optimistic after these discussions that we are in a good way," Tsipras said, after meeting the presidents of the EU's three main institutions in Brussels. "We don't have already an agreement but we are in a good direction to find a viable agreement."
Tsipras was welcomed at the European Commission, the EU's executive and one of the three main institutions overseeing Greece's finances, by President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Making light of the tension and expectation surrounding their meeting, the two men clasped hands merrily and marched off swinging their arms, without talking to reporters.
The negotiations are expected to be tough, however.
Juncker has said the EU would show flexibility in helping Athens with its debts but ruled out wholesale policy changes.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was too early to speculate on a deal as Greece had not yet made suggestions on how to reduce its debt load.
"We are waiting for the concrete proposals, and then we can talk further," said Merkel, who could have her first meeting with Tsipras on Feb. 12, when EU leaders gather in Brussels.
Germany has long been Europe's toughest enforcer of debt reduction policies, particularly in countries like Greece that got rescue loans from fellow EU states.
Donald Tusk, the president of the EU, said the debt negotiations with Athens "will be difficult, will require cooperation and dialogue as well as determined efforts by Greece."
Tsipras is riding a wave of popular discontent in Greece over the austerity measures demanded by the creditors, which include eurozone states like Germany as well as the International Monetary Fund.
He has rejected discussing the country's debt with the so-called troika — a team of technical experts representing the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF. Instead, his left-wing government has sought to hold talks with the leaders of those institutions and governments.
A first priority is whether Greece will ask for an extension to its loan program before a fast-approaching bailout deadline on Feb. 28. If not, Athens would be left to fend for itself without international backing.
Meanwhile, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis met with European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in Frankfurt before holding talks Thursday with German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble in Berlin.
Varoufakis said he and Draghi had "a very fruitful discussion" about the rules and constraints of monetary union.
"I had the opportunity to present to him our government's utter and unwavering determination that it can't possibly be business as usual in Greece," he said, regarding both Greece's underlying economic troubles and the bailout program, which he said had contributed to "a major humanitarian crisis."
David McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.