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Bailout of banks in Spain buys time; Larger solution sought by Europe amid crisis

A $125 billion plan to rescue Spain's banks won't solve Europe's debt crisis or ease the pain of double-digit unemployment across the continent.

But it is likely to calm financial markets and buy time for European policymakers to work with other weak economies threatening the stability of the 17-nation eurozone.

Europe still has plenty of troubles to address in the three other countries that have already received financial help -- Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

In Greece, voters could elect a government next week that will refuse to live up to the terms of the country's $170 billion rescue package. Portugal is combating a toxic combination of high debts and 15 percent unemployment. Ireland is cleaning up a banking mess a lot like Spain's. Then there's Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy, where debts are piling up as the economy stagnates.

"We still have some pretty fundamental problems to solve," says Nicolas Veron, senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. "We need more radical solutions than this one."

Germany, worried that it will get stuck with the bill for any ambitious schemes, has rejected several ideas for easing the crisis. It has been reluctant to relax the terms of previous bailouts to reduce the pain of austerity on Greece, Portugal and Ireland. And it has resisted calls for the creation of joint "eurobonds" that would raise money and spread responsibility for repayment across the eurozone.

Likewise, the European Central Bank has been reluctant to intervene to jolt the eurozone economy. Last week, it passed up an opportunity to reduce interest rates. And it has been reluctant to flood the economy with money to push down interest rates the way the U.S. Federal Reserve has.

But the plan to lend gobs of money to Spanish banks eases an immediate crisis in the euro's fourth-largest economy. The deterioration of Spain's banks and the pressing need for a rescue was threatening to bankrupt its government. That would likely cause far more pain for Europe than the financial messes in Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

Saturday, Spain asked the 16 other countries that use the euro currency for money to rescue its banking system, but it has not yet said how much money it would seek. However, the eurozone finance ministers said in a statement Saturday that they were prepared to lend up to $125 billion.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said interest rates on the loans will be considerably lower than the rate of nearly 7 percent that Spain has been forced to pay on the international debt markets, a level that forced the other countries to seek bailouts.

It is not yet clear whether the money will come from the eurozone's current $550 billion rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, or its new $625 billion European Stability Mechanism.

Spain had been resisting pressure to seek outside help for its banks, which have been overwhelmed by bad real estate loans. But leaders became increasingly concerned that any fallout from Greece's upcoming elections would rock markets, further hurting Spain's financial sector. The exact amount that Spain needs won't be clear until outside accountants complete an audit of its banks by June 21.

Unlike the three other European countries that have received financial help -- Ireland, Portugal and Greece -- Spain did not have to agree to deeper cuts in its government budget to secure the help.

Working in Spain's favor is the fact that its public debts aren't especially high. They amounted to less than 69 percent of its gross domestic product at the end of 2011, lower than Germany's 82 percent.

Spain has already agreed to government belt-tightening. More austerity likely would have pushed Spain, already suffering from a nearly 25 percent rate of unemployment, deeper into recession.

Europe's weakest countries aren't all alike.

Spain and Ireland, like the United States, were crushed by a collapse in the housing market, which left their banks with huge losses on housing loans. The Irish government was forced to slash government spending to pay for a bank rescue. The austerity has pinched the economy; Irish unemployment exceeds 14 percent.

Greece ran up vast budget deficits that it couldn't sustain and smothered its economy in regulations designed to protect favored industries.

Italy and Portugal are desperately in need of economic growth that will provide the tax revenues they need to pay their bills. The Italian government of Prime Minister Mario Monti is committed to raising taxes, cutting spending, fighting tax evasion and promoting competition in many professions, from cabdrivers to pharmacists. But the budget cuts threaten to undermine Italy's economy, which is already in recession. Under the terms of its earlier bailout, Portugal is making deep spending cuts, which have made its recession deeper and more painful.

The troubles in Europe also are causing economic problems for the United States and developing countries such as China and Brazil, which rely on Europeans to buy their exports. So the plan unveiled Saturday eases pressure on the United States and the rest of the world economy, as well.

European economic troubles pinch U.S. businesses. U.S. companies send 22 percent of the goods they export to Europe and have more than $2 trillion invested in factories, offices and businesses there.

A bigger fear is that Europe's financial troubles could cross the Atlantic. When banks lose confidence in one another, they refuse to lend among themselves. Credit dries up, depriving economies of the fuel they need to grow. A financial crunch can wreck the economies on both sides of the ocean, as it did in 2008.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, said, "Anything that calms European markets is good for the United States."