- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

BRUSSELS | Finance ministers from the 16 countries that use the euro agreed Sunday to rescue Greece with $146.1 billion in loans over three years to keep it from defaulting on its debts.

The loan package with the International Monetary Fund is also aimed at keeping Greece’s debt crisis from spreading to other financially weak countries, such as Spain and Portugal — just as Europe is struggling out of a painful recession.

In return, Greece had to agree to an austerity program that will impose painful spending cuts and tax increases on its people for years to come.

RELATED STORY: German Cabinet OKs $11B Greece bailout

The plan will still need approval by some countries’ parliaments. But the head of the eurogroup, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, said Greece will get the first funds by May 19, when Athens has 8.5 billion euros worth of a 10-year bond maturing.

Fears that the money might be held up by objections in powerful eurozone member Germany — where the Greek bailout is not popular — sent shudders through bond and stock markets last week.

But European Union President Herman Van Rompuy called for a special summit of the euro countries on May 7 to “conclude the whole process” once national parliaments deal with the issue “in the next few days.”

Berlin needs parliament to approve its part in the rescue, but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Chancellor Angela Merkel said that could be wrapped up by Friday.

“It is not an easy decision, but there is no alternative,” Mr. Schaeuble said after the eurozone finance ministers approved the package in an emergency meeting in Brussels.

Mr. Juncker said the eurozone would contribute 80 billion euros to the package, with 30 billion euros of that to be made available this year. The rest of the money would come from the Washington, D.C.-based IMF.

EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Ollie Rehn said the loans from other eurozone countries to Greece would carry an interest rate of “around 5 percent.”

Because the interest rate is higher than the one those countries face themselves on the market, they could make money from the rescue package. But the rate is significantly lower than Greece would face if it tried to borrow on the international market, where it has seen its borrowing costs spiral because of investor fears it would default.

Athens has said the plan will allow it breathing space to implement harsh new austerity measures it announced earlier on Sunday to bring its economy into order.

“This mechanism is an enormous step forward for Europe and, of course, for Greece,” Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said.

The new measures he announced earlier in Athens include cuts in civil servants’ salaries and pensions, and tax increases that aim to cut the deficit to below 3 percent of gross domestic product, within EU limits, by 2014. The deficit currently stands at 13.6 percent.

“We are called on today to make a basic choice. The choice is between collapse or salvation,” Mr. Papaconstantinou said before flying to Brussels.

He said savings worth 30 billion euros through 2012 would be achieved through public service and pension pay cuts, higher taxes and streamlining government.

Annual holiday bonuses will be capped at 1,000 euros ($1,330) per year for civil servants and scrapped for those with gross monthly salaries over 3,000 euros ($3,995), he said. Pensioners’ bonuses will also be capped at 800 euros and canceled for those paid more than 2,500 euros ($3,330).

Salary cuts will not extend to the private sector, as had been widely feared.

Greeks receive their annual pay in 14 installments, receiving extra at Christmas, Easter and for their summer vacations.

The IMF and EU said the bailout and austerity program were tough and would help Greece out of its troubles, but warned it would take years.

“The steps being taken, while difficult, are necessary to restore confidence in the Greek economy and to secure a better future for the Greek people,” said a joint statement by Mr. Rehn and IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

“We are confident that Greece will rise to the challenge and succeed.”

Many economists say that while a bailout would keep Greece from defaulting in the next year or two, its meager prospects for economic growth mean it will have difficulty paying off its debt pile over the long term.

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