BRUSSELS Germany, the Netherlands and Finland issued a joint declaration on Tuesday that appeared to unravel much of what was agreed at the last European summit in June, when EU leaders paved the way for the direct recapitalization of problem banks.
In a statement issued after a meeting of their finance ministers in Helsinki, the three AAA-rated countries set out the terms under which they would be willing to allow the euro zone's permanent rescue fund, the ESM, to recapitalize at-risk banks.
But the statement made a sharp distinction between future banking problems and "legacy" difficulties - essentially saying that highly indebted banks in Spain, Ireland and Greece will remain the responsibility of those countries' governments.
That is likely to frustrate Spain and Ireland in particular, as both had interpreted the June summit as implying that a way would be found to break the debilitating link between their indebted banks and the debts of the government.
"The ESM can take direct responsibility of problems that occur under the new supervision, but legacy assets should be under the responsibility of national authorities," read the statement by the Dutch, Finns and Germans, the three countries that have taken the hardest line during the debt crisis.
Asked for clarification, representatives of the three governments were not prepared to elaborate on the record.
But one senior euro zone official familiar with the discussions that took part in Helsinki said: "All I can say is that the statement means that ESM direct recapitalization should not be used to take care of old problems."
If it stands - and that depends on discussions that will take place between heads of state in the coming days and weeks - the position adopted by the Dutch, Finns and Germans is likely to cause deep consternation in financial markets.
In Spain, the latest epicenter of the euro zone debt crisis, this would put immediate pressure on the state's finances as the 100-billion-euro European credit line for Spanish lenders would count as public debt, something Madrid had hoped to avoid.
The country is expected to tap between 40 billion euros and 60 billion euros of this money, equivalent to around 4-6 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
"For Spain, direct bank recapitalization is not a priority. If the debt was to go up by 4 percent, that would be perfectly manageable as it would remain below European Union average," said a spokesman for the Economy Ministry.
For Ireland, the situation is also unclear.
"Depending on how it is interpreted, it may or may not allow the Irish government to sell its interests in the surviving Irish banks to the ESM," said John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute, a Dublin-based think tank.
A spokesman for Ireland's Department of Finance said: "We welcome their ideas on how to give effect to the decision of Eurozone leaders that the ESM should have the capacity to recapitalize banks directly."
"In respect of Ireland, technical discussions remain on-going on how we can improve the sustainability of Irish financial system, in line with the June Summit mandate."
The June summit agreement created the impression in markets that the ESM, which should come into force on October 8, would be able to take direct stakes in Ireland's and Spain's troubled banks in the coming months, taking the burden off the state.
Instead it now appears likely that Spain and Ireland could remain saddled with vast amounts of bank debt that will make it all the harder for their governments to resolve these banking problems and get their own finances on track at the same time.
Spanish officials were not immediately reachable for comment. But an official in Brussels interpreted the statement as rowing back almost completely on the June deal, a move that will undermine efforts to resolve a debt crisis that has rumbled on for 2-1/2 and destabilized global markets.
"There are a couple of countries that are trying to backtrack but I don't think they will be able to muster the force to succeed," the official said, referring to Finland and the Netherlands.
"'Legacy' problems is a newcomer to the debate. It is one more case of this habit of walking away from decisions taken."
A representative from one of the three finance ministries that issued the statement sought to play down its importance, saying it merely clarified what was agreed in June.
The official said that once the ESM is able to directly recapitalize banks - which will only happen once a new supervisory authority under the ECB is established next year - the aim was to establish which banks in the euro zone were "viable" and which were "unviable".
Only the viable banks would then qualify for recapitalization from the ESM. The rest would either have to find a way to be recapitalized via the private sector or be wound up by the national government.
The official said the issue was now "up for discussion", indicating that the statement was designed to reopen the debate, an invitation Ireland and Spain will no doubt take up quickly.
(Additional reporting by John O'Donnell and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Ritsuko Ando in Helsinki, Sara Webb in Amsterdam and Julien Toyer in Madrid; editing by Andrew Roche)