European stock markets closed mostly lower Thursday, slipping back from a modest technical rebound made as a strong survey of German business confidence helped sentiment amid the eurozone debt gloom.
Dealers said investors waited hopefully but got no clear lead from a French, German and Italian leaders' meeting after a failed German bond auction on Wednesday shook confidence in the safehaven status of Europe's biggest economy.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to drop her refusal to allow the European Central Bank to become a lender of last resort for weaker eurozone countries but once again failed to get any movement.
"The French president has just underlined that the European Central Bank is independent," Merkel said after the meeting.
"All three of us said that with respect for the independence of this institution, one should refrain from positive or negative demands of the ECB," Sarkozy added.
In the absence of any breakthrough, the markets were left only with the Ifo economic institute's closely watched business sentiment index which rose to 106.6 in November from 106.4 in October, the first gain in four months and contrary to analyst forecasts for a fall.
"The German economy is still performing relatively well despite the international turmoil," said Ifo president Hans-Werner Sinn.
US markets were closed Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday, after very heavy losses on Wednesday, meaning investors could only focus on European news for their lead.
In London, the FTSE-100 index of top companies closed down 0.24 percent at 5,127.57 points. In Paris, the CAC-40 was virtually unchanged at 2,822.25 points while in Frankfurt the DAX 30 shed 0.54 percent to 5,428.11 points.
Milan was flat and Madrid down 0.23 percent after choppy trade.
The euro continued weaker at $1.3327, coming off a fresh six-week low of $1.3316, rattled after a sale of German 10-year bonds flopped with bids of only 3.9 billion euros for the six-billion-euros of 10-year bonds on offer.
Analysts said the outcome stoked fears that investors were now turning away from what had been judged to be the safest assets in the eurozone.
Michael Hewson at CMC Markets said the outcome "sent chills of fear through Europe as investors saw the first signs that Germany was exhibiting the initial signs of contagion from Europe's debt crisis."
"Contagion is slowly dragging some of the most secure countries into the debt crisis," said Jonathan Bristow, a broker at Valbury Capital.
"If the eurozone leaders don't turn it around soon this global crisis will take hold on the very countries needed to get us out of it."
The euro did get an early bounce on the German data to above $1.34 but then fell back steadily after Merkel insisted again that the ECB had to stick to its main task, controlling inflation, rather than help out weaker eurozone states who have flouted the bloc's fiscal rules, analysts said.
A sharp spike in Italian borrowing costs added to the negative tone, with the rate on the country's 10-year bonds soaring back above 7.0 percent, a level considered ultimately unsustainable.
"European leaders promised today better coordination of eurozone economic policy, in other words on medium-term decisions that produce results in the long term," said debt strategist Patrick Jacq at BNP Paribas bank.
"However, the market is looking for short-term solutions and essentially for a greater role for the ECB. This meeting was rather disappointing," he added.
In another fresh sign that all was not well among the eurozone's peripheral nations, Fitch cut its rating on bailed-out Portugal to junk-bond status at 'BB+', blaming its high level of debt and weak economic outlook.
In Asian trade earlier Thursday, Tokyo dropped 1.80 percent as it played catch-up with regional losses on Wednesday when it was closed for a public holiday. Hong Kong gained 0.40 percent, Shanghai was up 0.10 percent but Sydney slipped 0.17 percent.