Europe races to meet March debt deadline

By Roddy Thomson, AFP

BRUSSELS–European leaders get back to the pressing business of trying to fix the eurozone debt crisis with a hectic series of summits counting down to a March 25 deadline. Governments know they have their work cut out to satisfy expectant markets, with the heat still on over fears for Portugal and Greece, a country that wants its existing bailout renegotiated.

Final decisions are due to be reached on the size, shape and scope of a permanent financial rescue system being set up for Jan. 1, 2013. A temporary fund, already tapped by Ireland in December, offers little room for maneuver if Portugal needs help in the short term. Eurozone paymaster Germany won’t guarantee its backing unless Berlin wins concessions on how other nations govern their finances first. Germany, supported by France, wants to reform everything from pensions to business taxation across the 17-nation eurozone in particular. “We need to see a clear message from European authorities to be sure that the crisis is behind us,” said analysts from Dexia this week. The sluggish pace of decision-making has already been criticized by a host of ministers, including Portugal’s Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. Analysts from the Bruegel Institute in Brussels also say the EU has “lost too much time, allowed confidence to ebb away (and) destroyed its credibility” in the absence of an “aggressive” plan to push away market vultures. Next Friday, leaders from the right of EU politics gather in Helsinki to plot their negotiating strategy — as leaders from the left, including the under-pressure Portugal, meet in Athens.

They are preparing a special summit of eurozone leaders on March 11, which leads, following more meetings of finance ministers, to a full summit of EU leaders on March 24-25. Internal documents shared among EU ambassadors show that the prospect of a powerful deal is slim.