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ECB could change Greek debt waiver if reforms hold

The European Central Bank is willing to again accept Greek bonds for funding if Athens keeps to reform pledges, its president said on Wednesday, defending the euro zone central bank's treatment of Athens.

In a sometimes heated exchange with lawmakers in the European Parliament, Mario Draghi said the ECB could reverse an earlier decision that makes it harder for Greece and its banks to access finance.

"The ECB had no choice other than lifting the waiver," Draghi told lawmakers, during an appearance in the parliament, raising his voice to overcome heckles as he defended the central bank's treatment of Greece.

"Having said that, we are ready to reinstate the waiver as soon as the Governing Council will decide that the conditions for a successful completion of the program are in place."

It appeared from Draghi's remarks, however, that no such move to again accept Greek bonds as security for ECB funding would be immediate.

The ECB lifted the waiver on February 4.

In its absence, Greek banks are relying on short-term emergency finance.

On Tuesday, Draghi expressed reservations about a new list of reforms from Athens, calling on the government, in coded language, not to discourage citizens from paying their debts and taxes.

Draghi made his comments on Wednesday to a largely empty chamber although he was challenged repeatedly by Notis Marias, a Greek independent who sits with British Conservative party MEPs in the European Conservatives and Reformists group.

During his appearance, Draghi also said that confidence in Europe was improving after the ECB announced that it would embark on a program to buy government bonds to buoy the economy from next month.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi
Remo Casilli | Reuters
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi

"We have already seen some positive effects of our measures," he said. "Financial conditions in money and bond markets throughout the euro area have eased further. Lending rates to households and firms have come down considerably."

"All in all the outlook is more positive than it was a few months ago."

But Draghi also cautioned that euro zone countries needed to make 'decisive' reforms and move to a common system of governing their economies in order to move towards a 'genuine' currency union.

Unlike in the United States, the 19 countries in the euro zone have an often uneasy alliance, guarding their national independence and disagreeing, for instance, over strict enforcement of European budget rules.

"We have not yet reached the stage of a genuine EMU (Economic and Monetary Union)," the Italian central banker told lawmakers, arguing for "sound public finances and ... decisive reforms of their economic structures."

The European Commission currently enforces EU budget rules. "A common rule is only as strong as the common institution that can enforce it," he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Commission gave France until 2017 to bring its budget deficit below the EU limit of 3 percent of national output after Paris missed an already extended 2015 deadline.