With temperatures falling and many Greeks unable to afford heating oil because of huge tax increases on the fuel, Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras said the government can’t afford to provide more oil subsidies to help the poor and told them to “be patient for another year” and wait out the cold.
“I wish there was fiscal capacity do to so but there isn’t,” Stournaras told Vima FM in a response to a question about assistance for poor families to buy heating oil. Members of Parliament from a number of parties, including coalition partners New Democracy and PASOK, have called over the last few days for there to be more help for less well-off families and as desperate Greeks have turned to chopping down trees in the forest and city parks for wood.
Health officials have warned that there are so many people using wood for heat that the air in Athens and Thessaloniki has become clouded with pollutants. The night air especially is heavy with the smell of soot and smoke that infiltrates clothes and hair and leaves people smelling as if they’ve been near a fire. In response, the government has told people not to use wood either, even if they can’t afford heating oil. Some schools said they will not re-open after the holiday break because they can’t afford oil either.
Last year, the government raised the tax on heating oil to match unleaded fuel, leading to the price rising by 40 percent. Demand for heating oil has since dropped by a reported 80 percent and many oil distribution companies have closed. Stournaras added that many of those who qualified for a heating oil subsidy this year have failed to apply for one.
The finance minister stressed that it was important for Greece to continue its tight control over public finances as it looks to convince its international lenders to release three more installments over the next three months but still hasn’t formulated a plan to go after tax cheats who owe the country $70 billion.
“We won’t get the next installment if we let up,” said Stournaras. “If the pullover starts to unravel, we’ll lose the trust we’ve started to rebuild. We have set targets that we have to meet,” he said. Greece’s political parties, however, are set to get subsides from public funds. The disbursal of the next installment, worth 9.2 billion euros ($12 billion) is due after the Jan. 21 Eurozone meeting. By then, the Greek Parliament will have to approve a new tax code that increases taxes, primarily on low-and-middle-income workers.