European leaders focus on policies

Germany blocks calls for help from central bank

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STRASBOURG, France — Ger­many deflected calls for the European Central Bank to play a bigger role in solving Europe’s debt crisis but won the backing of France and Italy to unite the troubled 17-nation eurozone more closely.

Europe’s biggest economy and the main financier of the eurozone’s three bailouts has argued against allowing the ECB to use its firepower to ease a debt crisis that’s shown alarming signs recently of spreading to big economies, such as Italy.

Instead of using the bank’s cash-printing power, the eurozone’s richest countries decided to use political tools to dig their way out of the crisis. Germany and France agreed Thursday to push for changes to EU treaties to bring the eurozone’s economic policies
more in line with each other.

“In the treaty changes, we are dealing with the question of a fiscal union, a deeper political cooperation … there will be proposals on this, but they have nothing to do with the ECB,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Strasbourg, France, after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s new premier, Mario Monti.

Many think the bank is the only institution capable of calming frayed market nerves, and Merkel’s continued dismissal of a greater ECB role knocked market sentiment. Stocks all round Europe fell again after a morning rebound.

Potentially, the ECB has unlimited financial firepower through its ability to print money. However, Germany finds the idea of monetizing debts unappealing, warning that it lets the more profligate countries off the hook for their bad practices. In addition, it conjures up bad memories of hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s.

The bank is reluctant to take on a bigger firefighting role. Its president, Mario Draghi, said earlier this month that it was “pointless” for governments to depend on ECB bond buys to keep their borrowing costs down for any length of time.

For now, the French, German and Italian leaders agreed that current rules were not stringent enough and need beefing up to prevent a repeat of the debt crisis that has rocked the eurozone for nearly two years.

Sarkozy said “propositions for the modification of treaties” would be presented in the coming days and be ready in time for the next EU leaders summit Dec. 9.

PORTUGAL DOWNGRADED

Portugal’s efforts to climb out of its economic crisis suffered a double setback Thursday as its credit rating was downgraded to junk status and a major strike gave voice to broad public outrage over austerity measures that have squeezed living standards.

Like others in the 17-country eurozone, Portugal has embarked on a big austerity program to make its debts sustainable. Earlier this year, it followed Greece and Ireland in taking a bailout to avert bankruptcy.

As in Greece, though, the government’s tough medicine, which is required by international creditors in return for the $104 billion in bailout money, is unpopular. The strike had a huge turnout, making it possibly the biggest walkout in more than 20 years.

– Associated Press


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