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G20 Summit begins as Greek debt crisis continues

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CANNES, France (AP) — European leaders' long-delayed admission that a break-up of their cherished common currency was a distinct possibility is overshadowing a two-day meeting of the world's largest and fastest growing economies beginning Thursday in this Cote d'Azur resort.

(Photo: Associated Press)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is welcoming Barack Obama of the U.S., Hu Jintao of China as well as the leaders of India, Brazil, Russia and the other members of the Group of 20 leading world economies in the city made famous by its annual film festival, but the event is far from the star turn the unpopular French leader had hoped to make six months before he faces a tough re-election vote.

European leaders are holding another round of emergency meetings Thursday morning about Greece, this time including officials from Spain and Italy — two major eurozone members whose debts have rattled markets and who are seen as too big for Europe to bail out.

All attention is on what Greek voters will say in a referendum early next month on a sweeping European bailout plan. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted in a late night press conference Thursday that they see the vote as a Greek choice between staying in the 17-member club of countries that use the euro or getting out.

A "no" vote could be devastating. It could lead to a disorderly Greek default, topple fragile European banks and send the global economy back into recession — and would threaten the cornerstone of European unity and decades of work toward integration on a continent wracked by centuries of war.

Sarkozy and other top EU officials have long held that it was unthinkable for Greece to quit the euro because it would be, Sarkozy has said, "a failure of Europe."

But in a late-night press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday, the leaders signaled for the first time that Greece's exit from the euro was indeed possible.

Saying that Europe had "done everything we could" to keep Greece in the eurozone, Sarkozy said "now it is up to them to decide if they want to stay in the euro with us."

That shift was prompted by the shock decision of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to call a controversial referendum on his country's $130 billion European bailout plan in early December that caught European leaders completely off guard and scrambling for a response.

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