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Europe’s leaders put to the test as its banks stare into the abyss

Amid fresh setbacks in politicians’ struggle to rescue Greece, the US treasury secretary is set to take part in meetings in Poland

Europe’s struggle to come good on pledges to rescue Greece from bankruptcy and save its single currency has descended into confusion amid political feuding and parliamentary setbacks across the eurozone.

Angela Merkel’s coalition in Germany was embroiled in rows about whether Greece should be allowed to fail; a parliamentary committee in Austria delayed a vote to ratify plans for a strengthened bailout fund; and in Slovakia the eurosceptic parliament speaker demanded that Greece be allowed to go bust, making clear that he would seek to undermine the plan hatched at a eurozone summit in July in Brussels.

Amid the cacophony, José Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, voiced exasperation at the failure of EU national leaders to keep their promises and talked up the benefits of eurobonds, a pooling of eurozone government debt. The Polish finance minister said the survival of the EU was at stake.

“Europe is in danger,” Jacek Rostowski told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “If the euro area breaks up, the European Union will not be able to survive.”

Poland currently holds the EU presidency and Rostowski faces a tough challenge on Friday when he chairs a meeting of EU finance ministers in Wroclaw which will now be consumed by the crisis.

International pressure on Merkel and other European leaders surged, with the US, China, Russia and others demanding they get a grip. In a display of Washington’s alarm, the US Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is to take part in the EU meetings in Wroclaw.

The American fear is that a Greek collapse would trigger a renewed European banking crisis which would spill over into the US, a reverse of what happened in 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers was exported across the Atlantic. A fresh crisis could plunge America back into recession and damage Barack Obama’s re-election hopes.

Similar fears are gripping the Elysée Palace in Paris. A Greek collapse would impact severely on French banks eight months before Nicolas Sarkozy faces a second-term presidential election.

Another leader under pressure, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has won a vote of confidence, paving the way for its austerity package to be voted through. The governing coalition has been fighting over the details of the fiscal consolidation plan for weeks but Berlusconi mustered enough of a majority to win the vote.

At a teleconference Greek prime minister George Papandreou told Merkel and Sarkozy his country was determined to meet all obligations agreed with international lenders in exchange for an EU/IMF bailout. Officials from the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund returned to Athens to try to get the Greek rescue package back on track. All three leaders have a vested interest in playing for time over Greece despite the sense that time is running out.

“The President and the Prime Minister have repeated in unison France’s determination to do whatever it takes to rescue Greece,” said the French government spokeswoman, Valérie Pécresse.

According to senior EU diplomats, this month the three officials departed from Athens “in despair” at the Greek government’s failure to honour the stiff terms of the bailout deal.

In July, eurozone leaders pledged a second €109bn bailout for Greece, to boost the funding of the bailout pot, the European Financial Stability Facility, and to empower it to replace the ECB in buying up stricken government bonds. But the plans have run into several problems. The level of involvement by Greece’s private creditors in rolling over debt remains lower than foreseen. The 17 countries of the eurozone have to ratify the new scheme promptly, but ratification has been delayed in Austria, Slovakia, Finland and possibly Slovenia, and run into rebellion among Merkel’s coalition partners.

While Barroso talked up the prospect of eurobonds yesterday, Germany’s economics minister and liberals’ leader, Philipp Roesler, ruled them out. Pécresse in Paris said they would not be a quick fix. “Eurobonds are for us the end of a process of consolidation in the eurozone because sharing debt also requires the convergence of our budget policies.”

In Bratislava, Richard Sulik, the eurosceptic parliament speaker and leader of one of four parties in the ruling coalition, said the bailout fund was a bigger threat to the euro than Greece. “It has often happened that a city within a country goes bankrupt, and that does not have consequences for the currency. We must let Greece go into bankruptcy,” he told Austrian radio. “The rescue plan tries to overcome the debt crisis with new debt. We are saying that this is equally a threat to the euro.”

That echoed growing calls among political leaders across eurozone creditor countries. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, was the first eurozone head of government formally to propose recentlynew arrangements enabling fiscal recalcitrants to be expelled from the single currency.

Barroso said: “Solid, feasible and concrete proposals have been made. They have been agreed upon. But they have taken too long and have not yet been fully delivered.”

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