BRUSSELS (Luke Baker and Julien Toyer) - Germany and France are exploring radical methods of securing deeper and more rapid fiscal integration among euro zone countries, aware that getting broad backing for the necessary treaty changes may not be possible, EU officials say.
Germany's original plan was to try to secure agreement among all 27 EU countries for a limited change to the Lisbon Treaty by the end of 2012, making it possible to impose much tighter budget controls over the 17 euro zone countries -- a way of shoring up the region's defenses against the debt crisis.
But in meetings with EU leaders in recent weeks, it has become clear to both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that it may not be possible to get all 27 countries on board, EU sources say.
Even if that were possible, it could take a year or more to finally secure the changes while market attacks on Italy, Spain and now France suggest bold measures are needed within weeks.
As a result, senior French and German civil servants have been exploring other ways of achieving the goal, either via an agreement among just the euro zone countries, or a separate agreement outside the EU treaty that could involve a core of around 8-10 euro zone countries, officials say.
No firm decisions have yet been reached.
Reuters exclusively reported on November 9 that French and German officials were discussing plans for a radical overhaul of the European Union to establish a more fiscally integrated and possibly smaller euro zone.
"The Germans have made up their minds. They want treaty change and they are doing everything they can to push for it as rapidly as possible," one senior EU official involved in the negotiations told Reuters. "Senior German officials are on the phone at all hours of the day to every European capital."
While Germany and France are convinced that moving toward fiscal union - which could pave the way for jointly issued euro zone bonds and may provide more leeway for the European Central Bank to act forcefully - is the only way to get on top of the debt crisis, some other euro zone countries are unable or unwilling to move so rapidly toward that goal.
Not only Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which are receiving EU/IMF aid, but also Italy and Spain and some east European countries such as Slovakia, would either find it difficult under current economic conditions to meet the budget constraints Germany wants, or simply do not agree with the aim.
Consequently, the French and German negotiators are exploring at least two models for more rapid integration among a limited number of euro zone countries, with the possibility of folding that agreement into the EU treaty at a later stage.
One is based on the Pruem Convention of 2005, also known as Schengen III, a treaty signed among 7 countries outside the EU treaty but which was open to any member state to join and was later acceded to by 5 more EU states plus Norway.
Another option would be to have a purely Franco-German mini-agreement along the lines of the Elysee treaty of 1963 that other euro zone countries could also sign up to, officials say.
"The options are being actively discussed as we speak and things are moving very, very quickly," a European Commission official briefed on the discussions told Reuters.
One source said the aim was to have the outline of an agreement set out before December 9, when EU leaders will meet for their final summit of the year in Brussels.
Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, which represents EU member states, is supposed to deliver a preliminary report on treaty change at the summit. He has held extensive talks with EU leaders in recent weeks to gauge the feasibility of bringing about rapid treaty changes.
Sarkozy, who has made two speeches in the past two weeks highlighting the need for more rapid fiscal integration in the euro zone, and has acknowledged that it may be inevitable that a 'two-speed Europe' emerges, is due to make another keynote address on December 1 which could provide a platform for laying out in more detail the ideas that he and Merkel are developing.
A senior German government official denied there were any secret Franco-German negotiations, but emphasized that both countries saw the need for treaty change as pressing and were exploring how to achieve that in the best way possible.
"Germany and France are continuing to focus on proposals for a limited treaty change that can be presented at the EU summit in December," the official said, emphasizing that there was a need to act quickly to get changes in place.
Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported on Sunday that Merkel and Sarkozy were working on a new Stability Pact, setting out national debt limits, that could be signed up to by a number of euro zone countries and which would allow the ECB to act more decisively in the crisis.
"If the politicians can agree to a comprehensive step, the ECB will jump in and help," the paper quoted a central banker as saying.
The ECB has bought the bonds of euro zone strugglers in intermittent fashion when they have reached crisis point. Economists say it has to act much more radically to turn the market tide but the central bank, and Germany, has opposed any such move. Commitments to binding fiscal rules by euro zone governments may be the cover it needs to change tack.
"It would be a real disaster if this strategy which is in fact no strategy, this muddling through, were to continue for some months," Peter Bofinger, one of the five "wise men" who formally advise the German government on the economy, told Irish state broadcaster RTE.
"If this bond run is not stopped it will really endanger the stability of the European and even the global financial system. Bold action by the ECB is definitely needed."
Reuters reported a similar possibility on Friday, with euro zone officials saying that if much tighter fiscal integration could be achieved among euro zone states, it would give the ECB more room to maneuver and buy sovereign bonds.
While EU officials are clear about the determination of France and Germany to push for more rapid euro zone integration, some caution that the idea of doing so with fewer than 17 countries via a sideline agreement may be more about applying pressure on the remainder to act.
By threatening that some countries could be left behind if they don't sign up to deeper integration, it may be impossible for a country to say no, fearing that doing so could leave it even more exposed to market pressures.
"Some of this is just part of the posturing you hear -- it's pressure from Germany to go for treaty change as quickly as possible," the official involved in the negotiations said.
"To some extent you have to see these ideas as part of the bargaining chips that are being put on the table."
The risk for Merkel and Sarkozy is that if they do ultimately decide to push for a sideline agreement involving only 8-10 euro zone states, it would send a clear signal to the markets that the euro zone is split and that some countries are not seen as full members of the currency union.
That could either mean that some countries in the euro zone are left with fewer voting rights, even if they still use the euro, or it could mean that some countries decide, ultimately, that they would be better off without the euro -- a camp that officials say Greece, the crucible of the debt crisis, could fall into.
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