LUXEMBOURG (AP) — The European Union's financial affairs chief is "less pessimistic" about the future of the euro than he was earlier this year — but warned that the region was still a long way to go before the crisis over too much debt is solved.
Olli Rehn, the EU's financial and monetary affairs commissioner, said the organization's ability to react to the financial crisis in the 17 countries that use the euro has much improved compared with two years ago when the crisis began.
He also welcomed the official launch Monday of Europe's new €500 billion ($647.9 billion) permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism.
"We have enough challenges in Europe," Rehn said as he entered a meeting of finance ministers from the eurozone. He added that while nobody was in a " party mood," he was "less pessimistic for the moment of the future prospects of the eurozone than, for instance, in the spring."
In recent months, the EU has acquired significant new powers designed to help it resolve the current crisis and prevent new ones. These include the power to closely monitor national budgets and, where needed, demand changes in them. Also in the works is a central banking supervisor.
The new ESM is designed to reassure investors that the EU is better equipped to contain whatever crises erupt in the eurozone.
"Today is a good day for Europe," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg who is also chairman of the ESM's board of governors.
The new fund will eventually have €500 billion at its disposal that it will use to buy up the bonds of countries whose borrowing costs are becoming unmanageable and also lend money to them if that's not enough. It will also lend money to countries that need to prop up failing banks, including handling Spain's bank bailout. It is expected that the fund will eventually be able to lend money directly to banks.
The ESM will eventually replace a temporary bailout fund, known as the EFSF, but the two will overlap for the time being while the EFSF continues to handle the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
The eurozone finance ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, are expected Monday to assess developments rather than make major new decisions. The countries considered in the most tenuous financial condition now are Greece and Spain. International lenders are still preparing a report on Greece, and no new disbursement of bailout money will be approved until that report.
And, while some have speculated that Spain may need to request help in keeping the cost of its borrowing down, Spanish officials have made no request. In the absence of that, EU officials cannot act.
"Spain has to do its part and we will do everything about the public deficits and the economic reforms," Spain's finance minister, Luis de Guindos, said. "And on the other hand, we have to move forward on eliminating all the doubts there are on the future of the euro. That is fundamental. Spain will have difficulties recovering while there are doubts about the future of euro."