The top four eurozone countries meet in Rome on Friday to tackle the relentless debt crisis with France, Italy and Spain pressuring Germany to accept new growth and intervention measures.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will argue their case that a shift is needed in eurozone policy with German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a European Union summit in Brussels on June 28 and 29.
Topping the agenda will be appeals for the eurozone to mitigate its German-lead austerity drive with measures to boost growth and Monti's call for the bloc's bailout fund to intervene on bond markets.
The talks were set to begin at 2:00 pm (14:00 SA time), with a news conference at 4:00 pm.
With the two-year-old crisis threatening to engulf Spain and Italy and weighing down the global economy, Europe's leaders are under intense pressure to find solutions.
Monti raised the stakes ahead of the talks, warning that failure to reach a deal at the EU summit would leave the bloc open to attack by speculators.
“There would be progressively greater speculative attacks on individual countries, with harassment of the weaker countries,” he said in an interview with leading European newspapers including Britain's Guardian and Italy's La Stampa.
“To emerge in good shape from this crisis of the eurozone and the European economy, ever more integration is needed,” he said.
Both Madrid and Rome have been hit with rocketing borrowing costs, despite a series of structural reform packages in Italy and a eurozone rescue loan in the works for Spain's stricken banks.
Borrowing rates for Spain and Italy rose on Friday after several days of respite, with the yield on 10-year Spanish debt up to 6.612 percent from 6.568 percent at Thursday's close and on 10-year Italian debt up to 5.815 percent from 5.734 percent.
Spain's government was formally to request eurozone financial assistance on Friday after Madrid indicated it could need up to 62
billion euros ($78 billion) to save its distressed banks.
Monti has urged fellow European leaders to back a plan for the eurozone rescue fund - the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) - to ease pressure on struggling countries by buying their bonds on the secondary market.
Italy's foreign ministry said on Thursday that Paris and Madrid were open to the idea, but that Berlin still needed to be convinced.
Friday's talks are also expected to look at refocusing eurozone economic policy on growth rather than on austerity, with observers hoping Monti can act as a mediator between Paris and the bloc's pay-master Germany.
Hollande has proposed a 120-billion-euro “growth pact” for the eurozone including a financial-transactions tax and infrastructure investments to boost job creation.
The idea of eurobonds - mutualising the bloc's sovereign debts - could also be on the table, but after an initial push Hollande appears to be backing away from the proposal amid fierce opposition from Berlin.
Paris has instead proposed “euro-bills” with short maturities and limited volumes.
While no concrete moves are expected on Friday, the four leaders will discuss broader efforts towards closer political integration, and the banking or financial union that economists see as essential to getting to the root of the debt crisis.
The United States, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have all urged greater banking integration in Europe, as the debt crisis boomerangs from financial sectors to sovereigns.
“The euro area crisis has reached a critical stage,” the IMF said on Thursday. “Despite extraordinary policy actions, bank and sovereign markets in many parts of the euro area remain under acute stress, raising questions about the viability of the monetary union itself.”
Adding to the sense of urgency, ratings agency Moody's downgraded the credit ratings of 15 of the world's biggest banks, citing exposure risk and Europe's economic woes.
German daily Die Welt Friday quoted an EU diplomat as saying the bloc's 27 countries had agreed one key integration step -
assigning a role as banking supervisor to the European Central Bank - and that a deal would be inked at next week's summit.
European finance ministers meanwhile continued talks in Luxembourg, where on Thursday they agreed to send international creditors back to Greece for talks with the new government there.
Arriving at the talks, Spain's Finance Minister Luis de Guindos said the eurozone was open to funnelling aid directly to Spanish banks, adding that a formal request for help would be made in coming days.
Europe's main stock markets slid at the start of trading on Friday, with bank shares the biggest fallers after the Moody's downgrade, following a slip in Asian markets. - Sapa-AFP