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Greece seeks ECB funds, Germany rejects austerity roll-back

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - 23:59

[FRANKFURT] Greece's new leftist government appealed to the European Central Bank on Wednesday to keep its banks afloat as it seeks to negotiate debt relief with its euro zone partners, but Germany rejected any roll-back of agreed austerity policies.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said after meeting ECB President Mario Draghi in Frankfurt he believed Athens could count on central bank support during the short period it would take to conclude talks with international lenders.

Banking sources told Reuters that two Greek banks have begun to tap emergency liquidity assistance from the Bank of Greece after an outflow of deposits accelerated after the victory of the hard left Syriza party in a general election on Jan. 25.

The Greek government wants that funding to continue because if the ECB were to halt it, Greek banks could collapse, forcing the country out of the euro zone.

Promising to end five years of austerity, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis are meeting senior officials across Europe to seek support for a new debt agreement.

However a document prepared by Germany for a meeting of EU finance officials on Thursday made clear Berlin wants Athens to go back on promises to raise the minimum wage, halt unpopular sales of national assets, rehire fired public sector workers and reinstate a Christmas bonus for poor pensioners.

"The Eurogroup needs a clear and front-loaded commitment by Greece to ensure full implementation of key reform measures necessary to keep the programme on track," the document, seen by Reuters, said in reference to euro zone finance ministers.

"The aim is the perpetuation of the agreed reform agenda (no roll back of measures), covering major areas as the revenue administration, taxation, public financial management, privatisation, public administration, health care, pensions, social welfare, education and the fight against corruption."

The new Greek leaders have had a cautious reception so far, even in left-leaning countries such as France and Italy which Athens had hoped would support its case for debt relief.

French President Francois Hollande said the eurozone's rules applied to everyone.

European Council President Donald Tusk said after meeting Mr Tsipras in Brussels that any solution must be acceptable to all member states, a veiled reference to Germany, Greece's biggest creditor which takes the hardest line on fiscal discipline.

Mr Tsipras, 40, said after talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that Greece respected European Union rules and would find a solution to its economic problems within the framework of EU law. There was no agreement yet, but talks were going in the right direction, he said.

After meeting Mr Draghi, Mr Varoufakis told Reuters: "The ECB is the central bank of Greece ... The ECB will do whatever it takes to support the member states in the eurozone."

"I have no doubt that we can conclude our discussions with our European partners, as well as with the IMF and the ECB, in a very short space of time so that we can kick-start the Greek economy," he added.

Without the support of its creditors and the ECB, Greece would soon find itself back in an acute financial crisis. Unable to tap the markets because of sky-high borrowing costs, the government has enough cash to meet its funding needs for the next couple of months. But it faces around 10 billion euros (US$11 billion) of debt repayments over the summer.

Clemens Fuest, head of the ZEW institute, said at the Reuters Euro Zone Summit that the chances of Greece leaving the euro zone had "jumped from close to zero to at least something like 20 per cent" since the election.

The ECB's policy-making Governing Council was due to meet later on Wednesday to discuss whether to extend emergency funding for Greek banks, on what conditions and for how long.

"We outlined to him the main objectives of this government which is to reform Greece in a way that has never been tried before and with a determination that was always absent,"Varoufakis said after his session with Mr Draghi.

"We also stated categorically that the debt-deflationary cycle in which Greece finds itself is detrimental to all efforts to reform Greece. He was good enough to explain to us his own constraints."

An ECB source said Mr Draghi had clarified the ECB's institutional mandate and "urged the new government to engage constructively and speedily with the Eurogroup to ensure continued financial stability".

Under ECB rules Athens needs to be in a bailout programme or actively negotiating a new one to qualify for emergency funding. The government's ability to issue short-term treasury bills to refinance itself is also limited by the bailout agreement.

With the Greek public determined to cast off the stigma of supervision by a troika of EU, IMF and ECB inspectors, and to regain economic sovereignty, the semantics of any new arrangement may be crucial.

A source familiar with the Greek position said after the talks with Mr Draghi: "We are thinking of a bridging programme. You may not call it a 'programme' for political reasons but perhaps a contract." The German document demanded that troika oversight continue.

ECB officials in the meeting talked about the rules on emergency funding and their desire that the Greeks reach an interim arrangement with the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, which next meets on Feb 16, the source said.

Mr Varoufakis has so far said Greece will not extend the bailout programme when it expires on Feb 28.

Mr Tsipras won the election promising to negotiate a debt write-off, reverse some key reforms and end budget cuts.

Mr Varoufakis has since struck a softer tone, saying Greece aims to swap its official loans for growth-indexed bonds and its ECB loans for perpetual interest-yielding bonds with no repayment date. Eurozone officials responded coolly, noting that the ideas amount to a partial write-off by other means.

REUTERS