In Brussels policy circles, the question asked about a bailout of Greece used to be: are European Union governments willing to do this? Now, I can report, the question among top EU officials has changed to: how do we do this?
Twice in the past 48 hours I have heard very senior figures - both speaking on deep background - ponder the political mechanics of how large sums in external aid could be delivered to Greece before it defaults on its debts: a crisis that would have nasty knock-on effects for the 16 countries that share the single currency. One figure said yesterday that heads of government could not wait "forever" to take decision. That means a decision in the next few months, at most.
By sundown the story had gotten a bit more traction, with the FT running an article under the header "EU signals last-resort backing for Greece".
The European Union made clear on Thursday it would not abandon Greece and let Athens’ mounting debt crisis jeopardise the eurozone, even as Germany and France played down suggestions they had already formulated an emergency rescue plan.
“It’s quite clear that economic policies are not just a matter of national concern but European concern,” José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, told reporters in Brussels. According to high-level EU officials, Greece would in the last resort receive emergency support in an operation involving eurozone governments and the Commission but not the International Monetary Fund.
And by sundown the New York Times were running the story:
France, Germany and other European countries have begun discussing privately how they can come to the aid of fellow euro-zone member Greece, as doubts intensify over the country’s ability to get its budget under control.
Despite public attempts to discourage such expectations, discussions are under way, although the shape or scale of a possible bailout package has yet to be determined, according to officials in several capitals, all speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Greece failing is not an option and lots of people think that we will have to intervene at some stage,” said a euro-zone finance official, who was not permitted to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter. “It doesn’t have to happen, and we hope it won’t, but it would be better than seeing a default.”
Of course, we haven't gotten to the actual bail out yet. Timing will depend very much on what happens in the financial markets over the next few days. The spreads on Greek bonds widened strongly again today - reaching a record 4.1 percentage points over German bunds, while Credit- default swaps on Greece jumped 28 basis points to 402, according to CMA DataVision prices. As the Economist puts it in another piece:
The bond market’s skittishness puts more pressure on the Greek government to come up with a credible plan for fiscal retrenchment. A pledge to follow Ireland’s example in making substantial cuts to public-sector wages may now be necessary to ensure Greece can fund itself at reasonable cost. Having raised €8 billion this week the Greeks probably have enough money to see them through until May, when a chunk of their long-term borrowing falls due. The danger now is that market sentiment spirals out of control. If that happens, only the most radical measures, or a euro-zone bail-out, will turn things around.
The bail-out will now surely come, but first it would be better to have the EU Finance Ministers meeting on February 9 and 10, and the national leaders summit on 11 February. The key now will be to see the conditions imposed, and whether they are realistic enough to bring about a return to economic growth and debt sustainability over a reasonable horizon.
Basically all these reports today only confirm the contents of my January 21 piece - The EU Is Reportedly Exploring Making a Loan To Greece - contents which were based on a report in European Voice, a report which, despite all the denials at the time, now seems to have been accurate. The decision also means that the Commission remains adamant not to let Greece go to the IMF. In this case, I do really hope they know what they are at, since failure in the Greek case would immediately expose Portugal, and more importantly Spain to massive market pressure.
Finally, having started this piece with a quote from Charlemagne, I will close it with another one. This time, though, there is a difference, in that in this extract it he who is citing me, rather than I who am citing him:
The bloggers over at A Fistful of Euros offer a view of the Spiegel leak that puts the report neatly in context:
"there would seem to be an underlying transition going on here, one which in EU terms is quite rapid. The EU’s own analysis of the problems in the Eurozone is coming nearer and nearer to that of both the IMF and the credit rating agencies. We are moving beyond short term fiscal deficit issues, and immediate liquidity issues, towards problems like competitiveness, and what was previously a taboo subject - the issue of Eurozone imbalances"