Greece's Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos
Brussels - AFP
Eurozone finance ministers scrapped plans to meet Monday, just days before a bond swap to avoid a default is due to start.The decision came despite
comments that a deal to restructure Greece's massive debt was close.Greek officials had earlier built up the possibility of a Monday meeting of the
Eurogroup to move forward on a second bailout, which is dependent on a deal with private creditors to cut 100 billion euros ($130 billion) off its debt.
But time to reach a deal is running short.
Greece and its EU partners have set a February 13 deadline to begin a bond swap with private creditors to avoid a default by Athens on 14.5 billion euros in debt payments due March 20.
Greek Finance Minister Evengelos Venizelos had told Greek TV that talks on the writedown would be concluded with a view to a Monday meeting, which numerous officials said was pencilled in as a teleconference call.
But the head of the eurozone finance ministers, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, later issued a statement saying there would be no Eurogroup meeting on Monday.
However, "a Eurogroup meeting may be scheduled later in the week," he added.
In Berlin, meanwhile, a German government spokesman said that the conditions were not yet ripe for full talks among finance ministers of the 17-nation currency union.
Eurozone governments and banks have both been playing hardball for weeks in their bid to reduce by at least half the 200 billion euros in privately held Greek debt. The country's overall debt stands at 350 billion euros.
In Athens, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said in a statement Friday that Greece had nearly completed negotiations on a eurozone bailout dependent in the first instance on a debt writedown.
"We are in the final phase of a very critical procedure to form Greece's new economic programme and complete a loan deal that will lighten the load of the public debt and ensure the country's financing for many years to come," he said.
In Brussels, Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman for the European Union's top economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn, also said they believed that a deal was "within reach."
Finance ministers from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland were holding talks in Berlin on Friday on the Greek deal.
Josef Ackermann, the head of Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest private bank, and chairman of the Institute of International Finance leading creditors in the talks, said Thursday he might head to Athens this weekend to try to close the deal.
The goal is to reduce Greece's debts to an IMF target of 120 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020, from the current 160 percent.
Thereafter, as Altafaj confirmed, a new Greek programme of further austerity and reform will come into play, and will look at "all aspects" of labour-market reform, which could involve a reduction of minimum wages for Greek workers.
"Everything is up for negotiation, nothing is imposed," Altafaj said.
Banks say the debt-swap proposed over the longer term means they would in essence lose 70 percent of their investments.
The debt reduction would then enable talks to proceed on a fresh 130-billion-euro bailout by the eurozone, EU and IMF partners for Athens.
However, a row is ongoing over a shortfall said by officials to be of about 15 billion euros.
This may need to be made up by public creditors, although the exact picture will only become clear once the deal on so-called Private Sector Involvement (PSI) is settled.
A proposal is on the table with ministries to cover this Official Sector Involvement (OSI) part of the deal.
But the OSI approach could jeopardise an ECB programme of bond-buying that has kept bigger, heavily-indebted economies in Italy or Spain away from trouble.
Experts have also warned that Portugal might require its own debt restructuring or second bailout later this year.