Europe News

Mixed messages on third Greek bailout talks

Greece's Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (L) speaks with Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos Jurado as they arrive to take part in an European economic and financial affairs (ECOFIN) meeting at the European Council in Brussels, on February 17, 2015.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

Euro zone countries are discussing a third bailout for Greece worth 30 billion to 50 billion euros, Spain's economy minister said on Monday, but EU officials said there were no such talks.

Speaking at an event in Pamplona, northern Spain, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said the new rescue plan would set more flexible conditions for Greece, which had no alternative other than European support.

But the spokeswoman for Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs the euro zone finance ministers' group, said there was no discussion of a third bailout and senior euro zone officials concurred.

"Euro zone finance ministers are not discussing a third bailout," spokeswoman Simone Boitelle said.

Greek leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras used a televised address on Friday to deny his country would need another international program.

Greece has acute and immediate funding problems to overcome, despite the four-month extension to its existing bailout it negotiated with the euro zone last month. To win that, Tsipras had to give up on key pledges made during his election campaign.

The extension averted a banking meltdown. But Greece still faces a steep decline in revenues and is expected to run out of cash by the end of March, possibly sooner.

The new government in Athens sought to assure it can cover its funding needs this month, including repaying a 1.5-billion- euro loan to the International Monetary Fund.

"The Greek government has been exploring solutions ... to ensure there won't be a single problem with repaying the IMF loan, or its funding obligations in March," government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis told Greek radio.

Most of Greece's options appear to have been shut off, for now at least.

A request for 1.9 billion euros in profits the European Central Bank made on buying Greek bonds will not be granted until Greece has completed promised reforms.

Athens has also sought permission to issue more short-term treasury bills, having reached a cap of 15 billion euros set by its lenders. The euro zone has made clear it does not want to see that limit lifted.

Dutch Finance Minister Dijsselbloem offered a potential escape route.

He told the Financial Times that Greece's international creditors could pay part of the 7.2 billion euros remaining in its bailout pot as early as this month if Athens started enacting necessary reforms.

"There are elements that you can start doing today. If you do that, then somewhere in March, maybe there can be a first disbursement. But that would require progress and not just intentions," Dijsselbloem was quoted as saying.

Greece is due to receive the 7.2 billion in remaining EU/IMF bailout funds if it successfully completes the program. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said last week no further aid would be paid out until Athens fulfilled all the conditions.

Berlin has also ruled out any debt write-down.

Longer-term, EU officials say Greece -- frozen out of the bond market and unable to borrow -- will inevitably need a third support program to buy time to get back on its feet.

Blame game

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Greece needed to give more details on the reforms it promised in return for the extension of its aid program.

Deputy Greek Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis told reporters that details of reforms would be outlined at the next meeting of euro zone finance ministers on March 9. He said some of the reforms would have figures and fiscal impact attached.

Markets are confident Greece will not bomb out of the euro zone, given that Tsipras's government has negotiated a bailout extension and backed off major election campaign pledges such as ending austerity and renegotiating its debt pile.

But diplomats talk of impatience with the mixed messages coming from the new government about its economic reform intentions and its finger-pointing at European partners.

The European Commission said it was seeking to maintain EU unity after Tsipras accused Spain and Portugal of conspiring against it, triggering complaints from Madrid and Lisbon.

Tsipras accused them of leading a conservative conspiracy to topple his anti-austerity government because they feared the rise of the left in their own countries.

"By European standards, this was very unusual foul play. We don't do that in the Eurogroup, that's not appropriate," a spokesman for Schaeuble told a news conference in Berlin.

Countries that had to implement their own reforms in return for outside help, such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain, have joined Germany in arguing Greece should not get preferential treatment.