GERMANY conceded on Thursday that Greece would need some debt restructuring as part of any new loan programme to make its economy viable as the Greek cabinet raced to finalise reform proposals to avert an imminent economic meltdown.
The admission by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble came hours before a midnight deadline for Athens to submit a reform plan meant to convince European partners to give it another loan to save it from a possible exit from the euro.
Greece has already had two bailouts worth 240 billion euros from the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund, but its economy has shrunk by a quarter, unemployment is more than 25 percent and one in two young people is out of work.
Schaeuble, who has made no secret of his scepticism about Greece's fitness to remain in the currency area, told a conference in Frankfurt: "Debt sustainability is not feasible without a haircut and I think the IMF is correct in saying that.
But he added: "There cannot be a haircut because it would infringe the system of the European Union."
He offered no solution to the conundrum, which implied that Greece's debt problem might not be soluble within the euro zone.
But he did say there was limited scope for "reprofiling" Greek debt by extending loan maturities, shaving interest rates and lengthening a moratorium on debt service payments.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair an emergency euro zone summit on Sunday to decide Greece's fate, joined growing international calls for Athens to be granted some form of debt relief as part of any new loan deal if Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras finally delivers convincing reforms.
Tsipras chaired a marathon cabinet meeting to finalise a package of tax hikes and pension reforms to send to euro zone authorities in a race to secure agreement at the weekend on a third financial rescue.
The leader of his junior coalition partner, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, told reporters the Greek proposal had been approved by the cabinet and would be submitted shortly.
Tusk said a realistic proposal from Greece will have to be matched by an equally realistic proposal on debt sustainability from the creditors.
Failure to reach a deal on Sunday, including releasing some money to enable Athens to cover debt service over the next few weeks could lead to a collapse of Greek banks next week.
If there is no agreement, all 28 European Union leaders will discuss measures to limit the damage from a Greek collapse, including humanitarian aid, possible border controls and steps to mitigate the impact on neighbours, EU officials said.
Just how uncertain the coming days are was highlighted when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi voiced highly unusual doubts about the chances of rescuing Greece.
Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore quoted the ECB chief, under growing fire in Germany for keeping Greek banks afloat, as saying he was not sure a solution would be found for Greece and he did not believe Russia would come to Athens' rescue.
Asked if a deal to save Greece could be wrapped up, Draghi said: "I don't know, this time it's really difficult."
The ECB is keeping shuttered Greek banks afloat with emergency liquidity capped until the weekend.
Even France, Greece's strongest supporter in the euro zone, acknowledged it was working on scenarios for a Greek exit from the currency area if weekend efforts to clinch a deal fail.
Under the agreed timetable, the leftist Greek government, which formally applied on Wednesday for a three-year loan from the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund, has until midnight to present convincing, detailed reform proposals.