At a closed-door meeting in Washington on April 14, Europe’s effort to contain its debt crisis began to unravel.

Inside the French ambassador’s 19-bedroom mansion, finance ministers and central bankers from the world’s largest economies heard Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the International Monetary Fund, deliver an ultimatum.

Greece, the country that triggered the euro-zone debt crisis, would need a much bigger bailout than planned, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said. Unless Europe coughed up extra cash, the IMF, which a year earlier had agreed to share the burden with European countries, wouldn’t release any more aid for Athens.

The warning prompted a split among the euro zone’s representatives over who should pay to save Greece from the biggest sovereign bankruptcy in history. European taxpayers alone? Or should the banks that had lent Greece too much during the global credit bubble also suffer?

The IMF didn’t mind how Europe proceeded, as long as there was clarity by summer. “We need a decision,” said Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

It was to be Europe’s fateful spring. A Wall Street Journal investigation, based on more than two dozen interviews with euro-zone policy makers, revealed how the currency union floundered in indecision—failing to address either the immediate concerns of investors or the fundamental weaknesses undermining the euro. The consequence was that a crisis in a few small economies turned into a threat to the survival of Europe’s common currency and a menace to the global economy.

In April, after a year of drama and bailouts, the euro zone seemed to have contained the immediate crisis to Greece and other small countries. Crucially, euro-zone economies such as Spain and Italy had avoided the panicked flight of capital. They were still able to borrow money at affordable rates in the bond market.

But by July, the rift among euro-zone leaders over who should bear the burden of Greece’s debt had prompted investors to shun all financially fragile euro nations. Like a wildfire, the spreading uncertainty threatened to engulf the whole of Europe’s indebted south, to outstrip the resources of its richer north and to burn down the symbol of Europe’s dream of unity, its single currency.

Now, as the bloc’s leaders rush to forge a closer political union, the lesson of that period looms large. Investor trust in public debt is part of the foundation on which all nation-states depend. And in Europe’s common currency—a unique experiment with the livelihoods of 330 million people—nations will win or lose that trust together.

The dispute at the Washington meeting divided two of the Continent’s grand old men, both of them born in 1942 and both among the fathers of the euro.

Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s ascetic and irascible finance minister, understood the IMF’s ultimatum. The euro zone would have to draw up a second bailout package for Greece by summer, just a year after a loan deal for €110 billion, or $140 billion.

But this time, Mr. Schäuble said, “We cannot just buy out the private investors” with taxpayer money. That would reward reckless lending, he said, and it would never get through an increasingly impatient German parliament. Greece’s bondholders would be required to lend more money, Mr. Schäuble proposed, rather than take payment for their bonds at maturity.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the urbane French head of the European Central Bank, warned against forcing bondholders to put in more money, which would effectively delay repayment. “This is not a good way to go in a monetary union,” Mr. Trichet said. “Investors would avoid all euro-area bonds.”

Mr. Trichet, in the twilight of a 36-year career as a finance official, feared that if Greece didn’t honor its bond debts on time, the implicit trust that kept credit flowing to many weak euro-zone governments would shatter. More countries and their banks would lose access to capital markets, in a chain reaction with incalculable consequences.

The April meeting ended inconclusively.

Meanwhile, the cost for fixing Greece was rising. The Athens government’s budget deficit was stuck at a stubbornly high level.

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Italian and Spanish borrowing costs were still affordable and stable. The yield on Spain’s 10-year bonds hovered around 5.3%; on Italy’s, around 4.6%.

The debate over making bondholders contribute to the new funding package for Greece—known as private-sector involvement, or PSI—divided euro-zone countries.

Germany had allies. In the Netherlands and Finland, new governments had promised voters they wouldn’t pay for problems in less-frugal Mediterranean countries. Breaking those promises would risk rebellions in parliament.

But France joined the ECB in resisting burden-sharing by bondholders. France’s banks had lent more heavily than Germany’s to Greece and other indebted euro nations, and France fretted about a Lehman Brothers-style banking-system meltdown. Italian officials also feared that a precedent for losses in Greece would scare investors away from Italy’s bonds.

Three weeks after the Washington gathering, on Friday, May 6, panic erupted. German news weekly Der Spiegel reported that Greece was thinking of leaving the euro zone, with policy makers heading to a secret meeting that night in Luxembourg.

The report was half-right. There was a meeting, but Greece was staying put.

Inside a country chateau, top euro-zone officials told Greece’s finance minister they expected deeper austerity and faster reforms in return for a new aid package.

Then Mr. Schäuble said he wanted to discuss how bondholder burden-sharing would work. The usually smooth-mannered Mr. Trichet lost his patience. “I want to put my position on the record,” he said: “I don’t agree with private-sector involvement, so I won’t take part in a discussion about the practicalities.” He stormed out.

Mr. Trichet’s assent was vital. If the ECB were to stop accepting Greek bonds as collateral for its lending to banks on the grounds that the bonds were in default, then Greece’s banks, which were stuffed full of their government’s bonds, would quickly run out of cash and collapse. That would radically drive up the cost of a rescue.

In Greece, a new wave of mass strikes and demonstrations was starting. Protesters, angry about Europe’s imposition of extra spending cuts and tax hikes, clashed with police in front of the Athens parliament in the biggest and most violent protests in a year.

Spanish and Italian bond prices remained stable. But Europe was at a dangerous impasse over Greece.

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