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Greece: The Brussels blame game begins

Could the EU have prevented Greece's debt crisis?

A woman walks inside the Athens' Stock exchange in Athens on Feb. 16, 2010. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — After weeks of pointing fingers at Athens for sparking a crisis in the eurozone, Brussels itself is being blamed for many years of passing the buck, so to speak.

Late Monday night came the most visible sign that the eurozone is taking a close look at its own processes.

“I’d like to apologize to the world at large that I wasn’t able to prevent a bad decision,” said Eurogroup President Jean-Claude Juncker, referring to the fact that finance ministers, under his leadership, had previously rejected giving the EU statistics agency some fact-checking powers. “I’m sure we were wrong, I confess it,” Juncker said, “not to have looked closely enough at divergencies of competitiveness that we had noted in Greece and elsewhere … we hadn’t drawn all the operational conclusions that we might have drawn from that fact.”

The Eurogroup comprises the finance ministers of countries that have adopted the euro and has oversight of European Union matters affecting the eurozone.

Juncker’s humility was striking in a city full of blustery bureaucrats, but he may also be trying to head off accusations of hypocrisy.

As Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has become more frustrated with taking the heat for his country’s immense economic mess and its implications for the rest of Europe, he has hit back, saying there has been “quite a big effort in the European Union to hide their responsibilities behind Greece.”

Juncker noted a 2005 effort by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, to equip the EU’s statistics agency Eurostat with the right to check up on figures submitted by member states. The recommendation was rebuffed at that time because finance ministers did not want to give up autonomy to the Luxembourg-based EU agency.

That decision allowed Greece to get away with submitting falsified finance reports and now allows the EU some degree of deniability. Despite his candid admissions, Juncker defended the EU by saying, “If we haven’t spotted everything that we should have spotted in the case of Greece, that’s not due to a lack of observation on the part of the commission or the eurogroup. It’s due to a Greek way of presenting figures which weren’t all ones we could validate.”

Even so, there was plenty of warning that Brussels’ suspicions should have remained on permanent high alert when it came to Greece: The country’s very entry into the eurozone was predicated on falsified figures.