* 11 countries back financial transaction tax
* Britain, Sweden, free-marketeers strongly oppose
* Greek police battle protesters as Merkel visits Athens
* French lawmakers endorse fiscal discipline treaty
By John O'Donnell and Harry Papachristou
LUXEMBOURG/ATHENS, Oct 9 Eleven euro zone
countries agreed on Tuesday to press ahead with a disputed tax
on financial transactions aimed at making traders share the cost
of fixing a crisis that has rocked the single currency area.
The initiative, pushed hard by Germany and France but
strongly opposed by Britain, Sweden and other proponents of free
markets, gained critical mass at a European Union finance
ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, when more than the required
nine states agreed to use a treaty provision to launch the tax.
Commonly known as a "Tobin tax" after Nobel-prize winning
U.S. economist James Tobin proposed one in 1972 as a way of
reducing financial market volatility, it has become a political
symbol of a widespread desire to make banks, hedge funds and
high-frequency traders pay towards a wrenching debt clean-up.
"This is a small step for 11 countries but a giant leap for
Europe," Austrian Deputy Finance Minister Andreas Schieder said.
"The way is now clear for a just contribution from the banking
and financial sector for financing the burdens of the crisis."
The deal raised the prospect of a pioneer group of European
states for the first time launching a joint tax without the
unanimous backing of the 27-nation bloc, a move that may
fragment the Union's single market for financial services.
It comes as EU leaders are contemplating creating a separate
budget for the 17-nation euro zone alongside the common EU
budget, according to leaked conclusions drafted for a summit
next week -- another step towards a "two-speed Europe".
EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta called the transaction
tax a source of new revenue from an under-taxed business sector,
and a means of encouraging more responsible trading.
However, critics say it could distort the EU's single market
by giving financial companies incentives to shift their trading
activities to European financial centres where the tax is not
levied - or away from Europe altogether.
"People will arbitrage it. People will find a way around
it," said David Stewart, CEO of London-based hedge fund firm
Odey Asset Management, which manages around $6.5 billion.
"If someone really wants to buy a company that's good, I'm
sure they'll keep on buying it. But if it's a synthetic
derivative then they may go somewhere else ... More volume will
go through London."
Britain, home to the region's biggest trading centre, will
not join the scheme.
Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter said the 11 countries
would present a model for how the tax would work by the end of
the year, and it was realistic to expect the tax to be
implemented by 2014.
Semeta said countries aiming to launch the tax did not yet
agree where the proceeds should go or how they should be spent.
"Some of them would like to spend it individually. Some
prefer to use part of the proceeds to finance the EU budget. It
is premature to say what will be the final outcome," he said.
The breakthrough was a surprise to many EU diplomats who had
thought Germany might fail to convince sufficient countries to
join the plan, which has been in the works for two years.
After heavy diplomatic pressure from Berlin, Spain and Italy
agreed to support the measure, as well as Slovakia and Estonia.
The European Commission has said a tax on stocks, bonds and
derivatives trades from 2014 could raise up to 57 billion euros
($74 billion) a year if applied across all EU countries.
SCANT PROGRESS ELSEWHERE
The agreement was a victory for German Chancellor Angela
Merkel on the day she travelled to Athens, epicentre of Europe's
debt crisis, to express her support for near-bankrupt Greece
staying in the euro zone.
Greek police fired teargas and stun grenades to hold back
tens of thousands of protesters who accused Merkel of imposing
devastating austerity on their country in exchange for two
EU/IMF bailouts that have so far failed to turn the shattered
"I have come here today in full knowledge that the period
Greece is living through right now is an extremely difficult one
for the Greeks and many people are suffering," Merkel said at a
joint news conference with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras not
far from the mayhem on Syntagma Square, outside parliament.
"Precisely for that reason I want to say that much of the
path is already behind us," she added, offering a public display
of support to fellow conservative Samaras and his
three-month-old government on her first visit to Greece since
In another step towards closer euro zone integration, the
French parliament voted for a law to ratify a German-driven
European budget discipline treaty which Socialist President
Francois Hollande had opposed while in opposition.
Despite a revolt by a handful of anti-austerity
left-wingers, Hollande secured a majority of his own Socialist
party and allies without having to rely on conservative
lawmakers to ratify a text he says has been softened by the
adoption of European measures to promote growth.
The 17 euro zone ministers finally inaugurated their 500
billion euro permanent rescue fund on Monday, but danced around
the question of how soon it might have to be used.
Ministers insisted Spain was taking the right actions to
restore its public finances and did not need a bailout for now,
even though many in the financial markets are convinced Madrid
will need help within weeks rather than months.
The International Monetary Fund doused several euro zone
countries' budget plans, including those of Spain and France, by
revising down its 2013 growth forecasts for their economies.
Euro zone peers told Spanish Economy Minister Luis de
Guindos that his country's budget cuts should take into account
the weakness in the economy as regional policymakers debated
whether to let Madrid slacken the pace of its austerity drive.
Of the IMF's forecasts for Spain, de Guindos said: "The only
thing I can say is to try to avoid that they happen.
"Logically, we are working on the basis that such negative
forecasts are not met," he said.
The ministers also had a "robust" discussion with the IMF
about the long-term sustainability of Greece's debt mountain --
a key factor in whether international lenders release an
urgently needed next tranche of aid to Athens.
An IMF director told a Dutch newspaper that European
countries should consider restructuring the Greek debt they hold
if the country's financial burden proves unsustainable.
Diplomats say euro zone governments would prefer to find
ways to give Athens more time to meet its fiscal targets and
postpone any consideration of official debt restructuring until
after next September's German parliamentary election.
European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi told the European
Parliament the euro zone economy faced a long, uphill road to
recovery and the bloc was still suffering a crisis of
But he said there was no alternative to continued budget