German officials on Monday downplayed prospects of any quick and dramatic change of course in the eurozone debt crisis, days before a parliamentary vote on beefing up the continent's rescue fund.
Weekend meetings of global financial leaders in Washington raised hopes of a change in strategy, with officials indicating that would focus on further boosting the firepower of the 440 billion euro ($595 billion) rescue fund — perhaps by allowing it to tap loans from the European Central Bank or otherwise leveraging its lending capacity.
Hopes for such a move boosted European stock markets on Monday, with German and French bank shares rising strongly.
However, ahead of a parliamentary vote Thursday on changes to the fund that eurozone leaders already agreed to in July, Berlin was keen to underline its attachment to its often-criticized step-by-step approach.
Thursday's vote on expanding the powers of the rescue fund, the so-called European Financial Stability Facility, will be followed over the coming months by final decisions on a second bailout package for Greece and on a permanent rescue mechanism meant to succeed the EFSF from 2013, Finance Ministry spokesman Martin Kotthaus noted.
"That is quite simply the procedure that lies in front of us — we will work through it step by step," Kotthaus said.
When asked in Washington whether he supported the idea of leveraging the rescue fund, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said: "Of course we will use the EFSF in the most efficient way possible."
His spokesman, Kotthaus, said that the EFSF "is how it is" and noted that only a small part of the funding has already been committed.
Asked about the possibility of leveraging the fund, he said "the discussion is not so far along that I could contribute any examples, ideas or subideas."
Some in Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition already find beefing up the EFSF by giving it new powers hard to swallow, and anything beyond that could be a hard sell among its lawmakers.
Christian Lindner, the general secretary of the Free Democrats — Merkel's junior coalition partner — called on the chancellor to provide clarity and stressed that his party opposes allowing the fund to tap ECB loans.
A prominent opposition lawmaker, center-left Social Democrat Carsten Schneider, said the government should come clean on its "real intentions."
"In Washington and Brussels they are already planning new programs in the billions, and in Germany the parliament and public are having the wool pulled over their eyes," Schneider was quoted as telling Der Spiegel magazine.
Merkel's spokesman rejected that accusation sharply.
"The true intentions of the government and the chancellor are on the table," Steffen Seibert said. "They will be decided on in parliament Thursday."
Merkel has been caught between criticism from abroad for doing too little and from supporters at home who fear she is spending too much taxpayer money on the crisis. She went on German television Sunday night to defend her step-by-step tackling of the crisis.
She warned of the dangers a radical restructuring of Greek debt might bring at this stage.
"Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust, and then the world was surprised that it fell into a deep crisis," Merkel said on ARD television.
"What we have to learn is that we can only take steps we can really control," she added. "The word 'haircut' is easy to say on its own ... (but) we must go step by step."
In financial terms, a haircut is a loss investors take on an asset. Many experts believe Greece's bondholders will have to take a sharp haircut — that is, not get paid back fully for the money they lent to the country — if Greece is to have any chance of reducing its debt load.
"What we cannot do is, along the way, destroy the confidence of all investors, and (have) them say, OK, they did this with Greece now; tomorrow they'll do it with Spain, the day after with Belgium or some other country," Merkel said.
"Then no one anywhere would invest their money in Europe any more, and we have to prevent that."
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