As Greece formally took over the symbolic European Union Presidency for six months on Jan. 8 with a ceremony including invited European officials, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said he would conclude negotiations with the country’s international lenders during the tenure and seek debt relief.
Samaras hosted European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and a host of other foreign dignitaries in Athens to mark Greece’s assumption of the EU Presidency which technically began on Jan. 1.
The festivities were centered around two landmarks – Zappeion Hall and the Athens Concert Hall – with Samaras and Barroso giving a joint press conference, with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy attending, along with a number of commissioners.
Security was tight throughout the day with a heightened police presence and traffic restrictions across much of the city center. and a ban on protests in the area of downtown Athens around the Parliament and the venue sites as the government said it didn’t want any uninvited citizens anywhere near the ceremonies, only VIPs.
Addressing a joint press conference with Barroso, Samaras declared that “Greece, after great sacrifices, is leaving the crisis behind it.” Apart from economic recovery, he said Athens would focus during the presidency on battling unemployment and tackling security issues, including the problem of unchecked immigration.
Noting the key European Parliament elections in May he said that, “Voters will choose whether they want Europe or not,” although they could be a test of whether Greeks want to keep his New Democracy Conservatives and their partner, the PASOK Socialists in power.
Barroso noted the risk of a rise in “extremism and populism” due to citizens protesting austerity but said, “I don’t expect these forces to win.”
He urged the Greek government and people to adhere to austerity. “This is not the time to slow down the pace of reforms,” he said. “My point is very clear: Programs work, so we should not waste the efforts so far.”
He stressed that Greece was expected to emerge from its recession this year and noted that early talk of a “Grexit” had slowed recovery.
Barroso said that, “Greece has faced an unprecedented challenge these last years. Two years ago, many were betting on a Greek exit of the euro, an implosion of our common currency, and possible disintegration of the EU.
“The European Commission has always stood by the side of the Greek Government and people. I always said that the success of Greece is the success of the EU. And thanks to EU support and solidarity, Greece has withstood the hardest period of the crisis,” he said.
He noted that: “The challenges are still immense, social conditions are still demanding, and unemployment remains at unacceptable levels. But important progress was achieved. Greece is turning around its economy, it will emerge from recession this year, is expected to reach a primary budget surplus, and is reducing its current account deficit.”
He noted the effect of the austerity measures demanded by the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) in return for $325 billion in two bailouts had caused hardship.
Ignoring almost four years of protests, strikes and riots by Greeks, he said, “I would like to pay tribute to the Greek people for the courage and dignity they have shown. Greek history and literature is a tale of heroes and prowesses, many of them of a divine or semi-divine nature.
“But these days, what we see is a tale of human heroes. The real heroes are the Greek people. It is now important that the efforts made are not wasted, that the success of the program is not put at risk. Because the adjustment programs do work if they are properly implemented.”
The Greek government also persuaded European Parliament President Martin Schulz to postpone a fact-finding mission of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who were due in Athens at the same time to check the effects of unpopular austerity. Critics said Samaras squashed the trip to avoid embarrassment during the festivities.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party which is opposed to the bailout deal and austerity measures, said he would not attend the ceremony to show his dissent.
The ever-upbeat Stournaras said he believed he could get envoys from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) to come to terms over how to close a 1.4 billion euro gap in the 2014 budget without restoring to more austerity and agree to a debt cut.
That would force taxpayers in the other 17 Eurozone countries to pick up the tab for decades of wild overspending and corruption in Greece, an unsettling political dilemma that has already been ruled out by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is putting up much of the $325 billion in two bailouts. She demanded harsh austerity in return.
A previous Greek government in 2011 stiffed private investors with 74 percent losses in a desperate failed bid to reduce the staggering debt, still at some $430 billion, an amount critics said can never be repaid despite Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ assertion the economy will begin to recover and Greece will return to the markets this year.
Addressing a press conference, Stournaras told reporters that Greece’s economic reform efforts had gone “better than expected” in 2013 and that the impact of the recession had been blunted.
Responding to reporters’ questions, Stournaras said the discussion on possible debt relief for Greece could start as soon as April, when the European Commission’s statistics service, Eurostat, is expected to confirm estimates that Greece will post a primary surplus in 2013.
“The discussion can be completed either during the presidency or after it,” the minister said. Any debt relief is expected to comprise a reduction in interest rates and an extension on the maturities of Greece’s loans, not a new write-down of the country’s debt, although the IMF said even that would violate its regulations and not be allowed.
The Troika envoys are due back in Athens next week and the busy Stournaras is also preparing for upcoming meetings of his Eurozone counterparts in Brussels on Jan. 27-28, although the discussions there are not expected to concentrate on Greece’s lingering troubles.