LUXEMBOURG/ATHENS 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 centers 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, epicenter 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 economy around.
"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 2007.
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 confidence.
But he said there was no alternative to continued budget cuts.
(Additional reporting by Eva Kuehnen in Luxembourg, Jan Strupczewski and Luke Baker in Brussels, Noah Barkin in Berlin, Renee Maltezou and Andreas Rinke in Athens and Laurence Fletcher in London Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mike Peacock and Alastair Macdonald)