EU scrambles to come up with stabilisation mechanism

Europe raced on Sunday against an Asian clock, hoping to lift financial markets with a new crisis fund for debt-saddled euro economies, backed by a “gesture” from their central bankers.

As European Union finance ministers gathered to nail down a “watertight” defence against predatory threats to euro governments, commercial banks and wider economic recovery, Brussels officials scrambled to fill in the blanks.

An EU diplomat told AFP that a kind of “bank” would be set up with unused funds from the bloc’s budget, which would then serve as “base capital on which to borrow 60-70 billion euros (up to 90 billion dollars) on the bond market.”

Guarantees offered by member states would see the interest rates kept low, the source stressed.

That translates into a mini-European version of the International Monetary Fund, which German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble pushed for during negotiations on an already unprecedented 110-billion-euro bailout for Greece, the origin of a worsening debt crisis.

The source said that could be supported by a “gesture” from the Eurpean Central Bank, presented as a signal that it would intervene to buy euro governmental debt, what traders and analysts refer to as the “nuclear” option.

That would set the cat among the pigeons in Basel, where the world’s central bankers are also gathering on Sunday.

Speaking on French radio, Europe’s financial services commissioner Michel Barnier said “you can count on the central bank to play its part as ever.”

Taken together, the latest bid to stabilise what Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has described as a “state of emergency” for the 16 countries wedded in currency union could easily outstrip the unprecedented Greek bailout.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Berlusconi each pulled out of World War II commemorations in Moscow to drive efforts, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would attend Sunday’s Red Square parade.

The European Commission’s executive was to finalise its proposals from 1:00 pm (1100 GMT), after which they will go before the ministers, whose talks begin officially at 1300 GMT.

“We have several instruments at our disposal and we will use them,” commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said.

Typically coy, ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet has not ruled out moves that could trigger a debt-buying spree, although he laid “responsibility” for the new backstop arrangements at the door of the EU’s political masters.

European Greens have urged leaders to go further still and create a European agency for debt and investment to issue euro bonds.

Diplomats said that powers intended for “exceptional circumstances,” that have previously allowed the EU to help non-euro members like Hungary, Latvia or Romania, could be invoked to facilitate the latest scheme.

A chain of European debt sent shares tumbling across the globe last week and has left EU banks in the firing line as investors flee amid growing fears that eurozone governments, also squeezed by declining global economic clout and an ageing population, will prove unable to balance their books over the coming years.

After eurozone leaders agreed to “accelerate” public deficit reduction plans, Portugal — which has raised its retirement age — announced on Saturday that a raft of cuts would be brought forward there.

“Between now and Sunday night we will have a watertight line of defence,” euro finance chief Jean-Claude Juncker said after Merkel demanded “a very clear signal” to markets to back off.

While US President Barack Obama has heightened political concern overseas, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who hosts G20 leaders next month in Toronto, stood side-by-side with Merkel on Saturday to argue that “this is not a crisis of the financial sector but a financial crisis affecting some governments.”

Nevertheless, doubts exist among non-euro countries over the longer-term impact on their taxpayers — not least in Britain, where an incoming minority or coalition government faces a eurosceptic public.

As power-sharing negotiations involving Conservative and Liberal-Democrat rivals unfold back in London, British Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling will attend the Brussels talks.

He can expect pressure over Britain’s refusal in March to back new laws curbing hedge and other high-risk investment funds, mostly based in the City and which eurozone critics say cost Europe dearly during market “attacks” on Greece, Spain and Portugal.