EU leaders support growth, give few concrete plans
European Union leaders concluded their latest summit early Thursday with few concrete steps to fix the continent's festering financial crisis even as the potential for a messy Greek exit from the euro appears to be rising. Some leaders stressed the importance of planning for just such an event but offered no measures that might help Greece avoid it.
Also left unresolved was what Europe should do to spark economic growth and restore the confidence of investors, who have driven some countries' borrowing costs to unsustainable levels. The fiscal austerity agenda that Germany has promoted as the solution to Europe's problem of too much government debt has been met with rising skepticism in other euro countries.
The leaders of the 27 EU countries agreed to give institutions such as the European Investment Bank the task of drawing up proposals for growth in time for another summit in June. But there was discord over more aggressive actions promoted by some leaders heading into the summit, such as issuing bonds jointly as a way of reducing borrowing costs for heavily indebted nations among the 17 countries that use the euro. The perception that European leaders lack the political will to tackle the continent's financial and economic problems has left markets on edge for weeks. Recession is spreading. Banks are under pressure. The biggest fear is that if Greece cannot be saved, other larger economies - like Spain or Portugal - might face the same fate.
The euro countries "have to consider all kinds of events," Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters after a European Union summit, but insisted that "the working assumption" was that Greece would remain part of the euro. Leaders gathered in Brussels recognized that Greece had endured significant hardships and promised to release development funds aimed at spurring growth. But the statement from Juncker, who also chairs meetings of eurozone finance ministers, was a frank admission that Greece could wind up abandoning the euro.
Political uncertainty in Greece is just one of the fires the Europe needs to put out. Leaders are also worried about rising borrowing costs in Spain and Italy that could force them to seek bailouts, just like Greece, Portugal and Ireland did. Markets had expected the latest EU summit to disappoint and it did.
One of the biggest questions facing Europe is whether it's time to cut Greece some slack. Some European countries seemed ready to ease the pressure, and international organizations have called for the pace of austerity measures to be slowed in some struggling countries. But Thursday's summit of 27 European Union leaders ended with no apparent concessions. A final statement said Greece had to respect its commitments and trumpeted the money the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund had loaned Greece as a sign of their "solidarity." It did say that funds for economic development would be sent to Greece - though it's unclear how much of an immediate impact on growth they would have.