By Jan Strupczewski and Annika Breidthardt
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European countries are seeking to agree before year-end on how to close failing lenders, part of an ambitious plan to create a single banking framework and fix broken banks whose problems have festered since the financial crisis.
The main issues are: Who decides and who pays?
Under pressure to strike a deal by the time European Union leaders hold a summit next week, finance ministers will try to resolve ongoing differences during two days of talks. Euro zone ministers gather on Monday and they will be joined by EU counterparts outside the currency bloc on Tuesday.
Creating an agency to close euro zone banks, as well as a fund to pay for the clean-up, would mark a deepening of integration of the 17 nations sharing the euro. But it raises complex questions of sovereignty and who will foot the bill.
Banking union, involving a single bank supervisor and an 'executioner' to close banks, is the most ambitious project launched since the region's debt crisis and is designed to provide a stronger underpinning to the single currency.
"There's a chance (of a deal). It will be a lot of work," said Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, adding that ministers may need to meet again to clinch an agreement. Ireland's Michael Noonan, arriving in Brussels, said there were still "wide differences".
After more than three years of financial market turmoil following the bailouts of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus, establishing a more unified banking system in the euro zone is seen as critical to defend against future crises.
But France and Germany have different visions of how a banking union would work in practice, with Berlin concerned about an over-centralization of powers in a bank agency.
Germany also does not want a single fund to pay for the clean-up. France, backed by Italy and Spain, however, want a new pan-euro zone show of unity.
In search of a compromise, ministers from the biggest euro zone economies - Germany, France, Italy and Spain - met in Berlin last week, although details of progress were unclear.
"Everyone moved a little," France's Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said of the gathering.
With so much at stake, it may fall to Europe's political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande, to negotiate an agreement when they meet in Brussels on December 19-20.
In essence, a banking union would make euro zone banks less dependent on governments in the countries they operate in, weakening the 'doom loop' between highly-indebted sovereigns and the banks that finance them.
But for such a scheme to become reality from the start of 2015, ministers need to agree in the coming days on which EU institution should have the power to say that a bank anywhere in the euro zone must be closed. They also have to decide how to pay for a bank restructuring or closure.
While the cost will eventually be borne by the banking sector itself from annual contributions, authorities may need extra cash up front before enough contributions accrues and the ministers have to agree who should make the advance.
To minimize any costs that euro zone taxpayers may have to cover, the ministers have already agreed that bank shareholders, bond holders and even depositors will be the first to lose money in the case that a bank is wound down.
But they have yet to agree on when the new, tougher rules on bank shareholder and creditor losses are to come into force. The initial plan was 2018, but this now looks likely to be pushed forward to 2016 instead.
(Additional reporting by John O'Donnell, Robin Emmott and Martin Santa; writing by Robin Emmott and Jan Strupczewski Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)