EU's Juncker steps up contacts with Greece, scant progress so far

Tue Feb 10, 2015 3:33pm EST
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By Angeliki Koutantou and Alastair Macdonald

ATHENS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stepped up contacts with Greece's new leftist leader on Tuesday to try to bridge differences on the country's debt crisis but EU officials cautioned against expecting any breakthrough this week.

Before crunch meetings of euro zone finance ministers on Wednesday and EU leaders on Thursday, Juncker telephoned Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to seek a formula for extending euro zone assistance to Athens after its international bailout expires at the end of this month.

The EU executive said the conversation took place in a "positive spirit of cooperation", seeking to calm rising alarm in Western capitals at the risk of a Greek exit from the single currency area that could trigger wider financial instability.

However, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis refused to rule out a standoff with his country's creditors. "We're not seeking a clash. We will do everything to avoid it," he told parliament, but added: "If you're not willing to even consider a clash, you're not negotiating."

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a Commission spokeswoman dismissed media reports of an EU compromise plan that lifted Greek and European financial markets and the euro on Tuesday.

"There is no Juncker plan at this stage, of no matter how many points, there is no such plan at this stage," Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told journalists in Brussels.

"That being said, of course very intense contacts are going on between the president, prime minister Tsipras and other players involved in the euro zone and beyond, but up to this point all these contacts have not been very fruitful."

EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said a meeting of Eurogroup finance ministers on Wednesday would be decisive, and reaffirmed the EU's insistence that the Greeks must request an extension to its current bailout program for a solution to be found.   Continued...

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras listens to the speech of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (not pictured) before a vote of confidence at the parliament in Athens February 10, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis