BRUSSELS (AP) — European leaders were trying Monday to find ways to boost economic growth and create badly needed jobs, even as they drew up tighter spending limits to avoid a repeat of the crippling debt crisis.
But the elephant in room as the 27 EU leaders met in Brussels was Greece.
Greece and its bondholders have come closer to a deal to significantly reduce the country's debt and pave the way for it to receive a much-needed euro130 billion ($170 billion) bailout.
Negotiators for Greece's private creditors said Saturday that a debt-reduction deal could become final within the next week. If the agreement works as planned, it could help Greece avoid a catastrophic default, which would be a blow to Europe's already weak financial system.
But European officials are afraid that even that deal may not be enough to fix Greece's finances, with some blaming Athens for dithering in its austerity promises.
German officials over the weekend proposed that Athens temporarily cede control over tax and spending decisions to a powerful eurozone budget commissioner before it can secure further bailouts.
The idea proved immediately controversial — both the European Commission and the Greek government refuted it — to the point that German Chancellor Angela Merkel pulled back on the idea when she arrived in Brussels.
She said Europe had to support Greece in implementing promised austerity and reform measures, "but all that will only work if Greece and all other states discuss this together."
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters as he entered the summit that Greece couldn't be singled out.
"I'm strongly against the idea of imposing the debt commissioner only to Greece, that's just not acceptable" neither for Greece nor the rest of Europe, Juncker said.
Though vital to turning around Europe's crisis, the negotiations in Greece won't resolve the weakening economic conditions across Europe as countries rein in spending to get their debts under control.
Front and center in Monday's discussions will be the continent's increasingly tough labor market. In Spain, for example, unemployment has soared to nearly 23 percent and closed in on 50 percent for those under age 25, leaving more than 5 million people — or almost one out of every four — out of work as the country slides toward recession.
Many now fear that Europe is on the verge of another recession, and leaders gathering Brussels said that spurring growth would be the focus of their talks Monday.
A draft of the summit conclusions, obtained by The Associated Press, proposes reducing barriers to doing business across the EU's 27 states and giving better training to young people, who are particularly hard-hit by unemployment.
It does not contain any new financial stimulus to boost growth, although the European Commission has separately proposed to redirect euro82 billion in existing development funds toward countries in dire need of help to fix their labor markets.
But turning around Europe's economy will likely require more stimulus from governments, which are currently under pressure to cut — rather than increase — spending.
"We have to have balanced budgets and at the same time focus on growth and jobs," said Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark, which holds the rotating presidency of European Council. "It is possible to both at the same time and it is important to understand that these are two sides of the same coin."
The 27 heads of state and government got a taste of the popular frustration with austerity and high unemployment on their way to Monday's summit in a city paralyzed by strikes. Leaders had to fly into the military airport of Beauvechain 20 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Brussels after the city's main airport was shutdown by a 24-hour strike.
Belgium's three main unions joined hands in the walkout to protest national budgetary measures that have in part been imposed on the country by the EU. If the country hadn't met cost-cutting targets, financial sanctions would have been imposed.
Monday's strike has been mirrored in many other member states. Overall, 23 million people are jobless across the EU, 10 percent of the active population.
"Europe has to offer jobs, social protection and perspective for the future. Otherwise it risks losing the support of its citizens," said the strike manifesto of the ACV union.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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