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Treasury secretary exhorts Europe to prevent debt crisis


A police officer uses a fire extinguisher as a man sets himself on fire outside a branch of Piraeus bank in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Friday. It was a third attempted self-immolation by the former small business owner, who says he was ruined after taking a series of bank loans. The 56-year-old was hospitalized with non life-threatening chest burns.

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WROCLAW, Poland -- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered an unusually direct plea for action to his counterparts in Europe Friday, urging leaders to move with more unity to head off a potential wave of financial crisis on the continent.

He got a chilly response. There was no agreement on steps to tackle the debt crisis that started in Greece and has spread to the much bigger economies of Spain and Italy. Many of the European finance ministers who heard from Mr. Geithner seemed to bristle at his intruding on their affairs.

Mr. Geithner urged the finance ministers to pump money into their economies now to try to avert a financial downturn, even as they work to reduce long-term indebtedness. He suggested expanding a fund meant to backstop the continent's governments.

"Your financial challenges in Europe are eminently in your capacity to manage financially, you just have to choose to do it," Mr. Geithner said.

He exhorted the officials to work to take "catastrophic" possibilities off the table and end "loose talk" about the euro currency zone collapsing.

The Europeans did not react favorably to an American telling them what to do.

"I found it peculiar that even though the Americans have significantly worse fundamental data than the euro zone that they tell us what we should do," Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter said after the meeting.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and chairman of the finance ministers' group, was even more direct in rejecting Mr. Geithner's argument that European governments should seek to stimulate their economies in the near term. "We have slightly different views from time to time with our U.S. colleagues when it comes to fiscal stimulus packages," he said. "We don't see any room for maneuver in the euro area which could allow us to launch new fiscal stimulus packages."

European officials appear to agree they need to speak with a unified voice, but it is less clear they can concur on specific policies.

Financially stronger countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland are reluctant to put their nations on the hook for bailouts of weaker ones, such as Spain and Italy. But they face the reality that failure to backstop those countries' debts could cause even more pain for economies that are already stagnating.

The European Union will not decide until October whether to give Greece a new installment of bailout money, officials said. That would lengthen the uncertainty about whether the troubled country will default on its debts.

Investors had hoped for a quicker sense about the direction of the bailout.

But the EU's 27 countries did agree to tougher rules to make it easier to punish overspending governments.

Under the rules, it will be easier to sanction governments that breach the EU's limits on debts and deficits, because in most cases a state would have to rally a majority of governments to stop the punishment.

That is a reversal of powers. Until now, a majority was necessary to impose sanctions.

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