* FTSEurofirst 300 flat, hovers just below 7-year high
* Euro zone talks expected to begin at 1400 GMT
* Actelion falls after warning on impact of higher franc
* Further share buybacks seen in Europe
By Blaise Robinson
PARIS, Feb 16 (Reuters) - European stocks were steady in early trading on Monday, taking a breather following last week’s sharp gains, as investors awaited a euro zone finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels to see if common ground will be found with Greece’s new government.
Shares in Switzerland’s Actelion fell as much as 4.9 percent after warning that a surging franc following the Swiss central bank’s removal of a cap on the currency against the euro will weigh on results.
Swiss stocks have slipped since the surprise decision by the Swiss National Bank to remove the cap in mid-January, which sent the franc surging. The Swiss benchmark index SMI is down 5.8 percent since then, with Actelion the most hit, down 15 percent.
At 0915 GMT, the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares was down 0.01 percent at 1,502.65 points, just below a seven-year high hit during the session on Friday.
On Sunday, Greece said it was confident it would reach an agreement in negotiations with its euro zone partners but repeated it would not accept harsh austerity strictures in any debt pact.
Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in a radio interview he was not very optimistic that Greece and its euro zone peers would reach a debt agreement in talks on Monday.
Greece’s finance minister and his euro zone peers, together with European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, will discuss on Monday how to proceed with Greece’s bailout programme, which runs out on Feb. 28. Talks are expected to begin at 1400 GMT.
“All eyes are on Greece again. We can’t really expect that an agreement will be reached today,” said Mirabaud Securities senior equity sales trader John Plassard.
“Meanwhile Greece remains defiant, with another privatization project halted: Fraport’s 1.2 billion euro project to manage 14 regional airports. This will further rattle Germany and could complicate the talks.”
Shares in Fraport were down 0.9 percent. A Greek minister said on Saturday the government plans to review its deal with Fraport to run 14 regional airports, one of Greece’s biggest privatisation projects since its debt crisis began in 2009.
Shares in Puma fell 1.4 percent after the German sportswear firm reported lower-than-expected earnings.
Halfway into the earnings season, European corporate results have been positive so far, with 59 percent of companies meeting or beating earnings forecasts with their results, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data. In absolute terms, quarterly earnings are up 11.2 percent on average.
“We’re expecting good surprises from the European market this year. Europe can rally without the U.S market,” said Marc Craquelin, chief investment officer at Paris-based asset manager Financiere de L‘Echiquier.
“Share buybacks have been massive in the United States. It hasn’t been the case in Europe, where there’s still a huge potential of releveraging.”
Investors expect the European Central Bank’s planned quantitative easing programme to fuel a wave of share buybacks in Europe, which would support stock prices.
Europe bourses in 2015: link.reuters.com/pap87v
Asset performance in 2015: link.reuters.com/gap87v
Today’s European research round-up
Editing by Susan Thomas