BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Resolving the crisis over European financial support for Greece may come down to creativity with words if an initial failure to craft a compromise is any guide - whatever real political differences remain.
A row over wording thwarted a joint statement by the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers on Wednesday night covering steps to be taken for keeping the country afloat and possibly restructuring its debt.
Officials with the Greek delegation and aides to ministers from the 18 other states said attempts to agree on a way forward before a bailout programme expires in two weeks’ time foundered over a reference to the international bailout programme which the new leftist-led government has vowed to scrap.
A draft included the phrase that the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would work with international “institutions to explore the possibilities for amending, extending and successfully concluding the present programme”.
This would “bridge the time” for Greece and the Eurogroup to “work on possible new contractual arrangements”.
By referring to the trio of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund simply as “the institutions”, the statement avoided calling them the “troika”, a word that has gone down in infamy among Greeks who ousted their last government for accepting troika-imposed austerity.
Talking of “bridge financing” and “amending” credit terms also went some way to meeting Tsipras’s demands that there be a complete break with the expiring bailout to allow a new approach promoting economic growth to help ease Greece’s debt burden.
But, officials said, talk of “amending” the deal went too far for German Chancellor Wolfgang Schaeuble and others. The euro zone paymaster is determined to show voters in the creditor countries - and in other states that have been bailed out - that Athens is being held to strict terms, not let off the hook.
If Greece could not have the word “amending” in the text, it would not allow mention of “extending... the present programme”. Since the government was elected to scrap the bailout programme, it could not agree to its continuation, Greek officials said. However, that appears to leave open the option of Athens accepting something that is presented as a new deal.
“NOT HUNG UP ON WORDING”
Those around the table thought Greece’s novice finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was about to agree to their text and some, including Schaeuble, left the meeting.
However, Greek officials said, Varoufakis was uncomfortable with the wording on “extending” the bailout. He called Tsipras and the two agreed they should not sign up to the statement. The ministers will sit down again in Brussels only next Monday.
As Tsipras took his case to fellow EU leaders at a summit on Thursday, a Greek official tried to play down the difference as largely semantic, saying: “We will try to reach an agreement and explain that we shouldn’t get hung up on wording.”
A senior euro zone diplomat, however, was cautious, saying the failure to clinch an outline accord was rooted in differences of substance on the credibility of Tsipras’s promises. The Greeks, the diplomat said, were talking in broad-brush, emotional political language while the Eurogroup wanted to hear the technical terminology of loan contracts.
Varoufakis had not even put Greece’s proposals in writing, offering only an oral overview of his country’s position to his fellow ministers.
“This wasn’t just a case of changing the odd word,” the diplomat said.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Paul Taylor