European leaders have started their first 2012 summit in Brussels, aiming to set new spending controls over individual governments, but also facing reminders of the continent’s economic difficulties.
In a driving snowstorm, Belgian workers Monday staged the country’s first general strike since 2005 to protest the austerity measures imposed in their country. Some flights were canceled into and out of the country, with public ground transportation services brought to a standstill.
The European Union heads of state are attempting to reach an accord on details of a plan to control spending across the continent, and at the same time to begin to boost the stalled European economy. Economic analysts say the continent could slide into a moderate recession in the first half of the year.
But concerns about debt-ridden Greece remained at the forefront as well. Despite extended negotiations with its private creditors, the Athens government has so far been unable to complete an agreement to cut in half the amount of money it owes them. That could reduce the Greek debt by $130 billion, but talks on the pact have snagged on the interest rate Greece would pay on the revised debt.
Germany, with Europe’s strongest economy, has floated a plan to strip Greece of control over its spending and hand the authority to an EU commissioner. But Greece has denounced the idea, and won support from Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the group of finance ministers from the 17-nation bloc that uses the euro currency. He said the idea was “not acceptable.”
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said European leaders are frustrated that Greece’s debt woes have yet to be resolved and that Athens has not kept its promises to cut spending.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to downplay the dispute over outside control of Greek spending. As she arrived in Brussels, she said her goal is to help Greece solve its problems.
The European Union says it expects leaders will agree to creation of a permanent $661 billion rescue fund for the eurozone countries that will take effect in July. It would replace the current temporary fund to handle future financial emergencies for debt-ridden governments.
But even as Greece seeks approval of new $169 billion bailout, its second in two years, new worries have emerged that Portugal might also need its second international aid package. Financial underwriters on Monday boosted the cost of insurance on Lisbon’s bonds and required that they be paid up front, terms second only to those affecting Greece.