As reported by Ekathimerini, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Wednesday both sought to strike an upbeat note at the official ceremony for Greece’s assumption of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency, emphasising the country’s progress in overhauling its problematic economy and playing down the fragility of Samaras’s government.
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. The EC chief urged the Greek government, and people, to stick to reforms that have been pledged in return for continued rescue funding from the country’s foreign creditors.
Conspicuous by his absence at the official assumption ceremony at the Athens Concert Hall was leftist SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras. He boycotted the event in protest at the government’s agenda for the presidency, which the leftists deem puts insufficient focus on boosting growth and curbing unemployment. Tsipras was also said to be angered by the postponement of a scheduled visit to Athens this week by members of a European Parliament committee who are probing the role and activities of the troika.
European Council President Herman van Rompuy spoke at the official opening ceremony of the Greek EU Presidency:
"Today in our Union, the rotating Presidency embodies the idea of shared responsibility for the common good. For citizens, this is a visible and tangible sign that our Union is a work of every Member State. This is already the fifth Hellenic Presidency. This fifth time comes at a particularly difficult moment for your country. That your government and administration were able to prepare so admirably for this Presidency despite difficult circumstances, certainly goes to your credit.
Democracy doesn't stop at elections. Democracy means: listening to each other, looking for lasting solutions; making agreements, respecting them and being accountable for the results; telling the truth, acting responsibly, providing social justice. These are our founding values – values we owe to Ancient Greece. We must protect these values above all."
In his comments after his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras he added:
"Greece is now assuming the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the priorities for the coming six months: "Growth, Jobs and Investments", capture with great precision the concerns of all European citizens and what we are all striving for. I am confident that the Greek Presidency will be both fruitful and successful."
Statement at the opening ceremony
Statement after his meeting with Antonis Samaras © European Council
Greek Presidency of the Council of the EU: aims and priorities
See also: Greece at the helm… MEPs have their say ahead of plenary debate. 13.1.14
Commission President José Manuel Barroso said at the ceremony:
"Over the last decades the European integration process helped to build a set of institutions and a culture of cooperation and compromise among our countries to prevent the re-emergence of war, oppression, discrimination and division in a continent that had been torn apart for too long. For European citizens, and notably for young people, to participate in the European elections is the best way to contribute to the future of the European Union they wish and deserve. This is about "Europe, our common quest" as the Greek Presidency's motto goes.
Greece takes over the rotating Presidency of the Council in a particularly challenging moment for your country and the Greek people but the European Commission has 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. 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. This is not a small feat.
When it comes to looking forward, the reality is that we are on the right path but we have not yet put the crisis behind us. We must show determination and perseverance. We owe it to those for whom the recovery is not yet within reach. Jobs and sustainable and fair growth is the goal.
Following the recent visit of the Greek government to Brussels on the 4th of December, the Commission's visit to Athens today demonstrates our ambition to join forces and make the Greek Presidency a true success at a very challenging time. And let me conclude by assuring you of the Commission's full support during these very busy months. I look forward to our close cooperation so that we can deliver tangible results to our citizens by displaying a greater community spirit, greater ambition and greater solidarity.
For the future, Prime Minister Samaras and I agree that we must go further in terms of European integration, particularly in the euro area. The Banking Union is one of our top priorities. I welcome the recent political agreement on the Single Resolution Mechanism, which marks the beginning of the end of bank bail-outs. We must also pursue work on a deeper Economic and Monetary Union, while making sure it maintains and reinforces a strong social dimension. I am glad to see that the Greek presidency is also prioritising agreements on key files to boost trade and the single market, as well as an ambitious energy and climate change framework to 2030.
Statement at the opening ceremony
Stetement following the College visit © European Commission
Video of the joint statement by Commission President Barroso and Greek President Samaras © Greek Presidency
At the start of the Parliamentary debate in Strasburg on 15 January, President Barroso stressed the main priorities shared by the Commission and the Greek Presidency, and the strong determination of both to succeed. He also clarified the Commission's position on free movement of people - 'a fundamental principle of the treaties and one of the core elements that distinguish our Union' – and on the Single Resolution Mechanism – 'not just our main deliverable, but also our primary duty before the elections'.
The Financial Times (subscription required) reported that Evangelos Venizelos, Greece’s deputy prime minister, insisted his country will be able to manage its six-month stint in the EU presidency despite mounting doubts in Brussels about whether the cash-strapped bailout country is up to the task.
Dimitris Kourkoulas, the Greek minister in charge of EU affairs, acknowledged his government had allocated only €50 million for the presidency – one of the lowest budgets in recent history – and its staffing would be well below its previous presidencies. But he insisted Athens had adequate resources.
The Guardian writes that Greece begans its EU presidency by saying austerity policies were intolerable and criticising the imposition of austerity, spending cuts and fiscal policy by Berlin and Brussels. Coinciding with a growing backlash across the EU against the austerity policies mainly scripted in Berlin, the start of Greece's EU presidency reinforced the isolation of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has dominated the policy response to the EU crisis for the past four years.
Following four years at the sharpest end of Europe's debt and currency crisis and €250 billion in bailout funds, the Greek government declared enough was enough. "Greece does not want to have any more fiscal conditionality", the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, said on Wednesday. "It is out of the question because it is already too tough."
As reported by Ekathimerini, Stournaras further confirmed during a later press conference that the Greek government intends to return to the money markets within 2014 to cover some of its needs and avoid a third bailout.
Athens is hoping that the country will issue bonds in the second half of the year, while it has not ruled out doing so as early as the first half of 2014, even though Germany, in particular, has expressed its opposition for an issue this year. When Stournaras was asked how the funding gap for 2014-15 could be covered, he included borrowing from international markets among the solutions on the table. The minister estimated the gap at €11 billion, adding that this could be covered without a third loan package.
Stournaras futher revealed that the eurozone and Greek authorities are examining measures to lighten the country’s debt load by about a quarter, or €82 billion, in line with the creditors’ obligations to Greece. The minister said that any new assistance from the bloc could come in the form of an interest rate reduction or the extension of the repayment period for the existing debt.
In an interview with the FT (subscription) on 9 January, Stournaras urged the troika to ease its demands on Greece, saying that while Athens can continue to implement existing reforms, including better tax collection, ambitions for major legislative measures may need to be scaled back. He was particularly critical of the troika’s negotiating style, accusing their top negotiators of adopting “a maximalist approach” when in Athens that spooked both financial markets and domestic companies, and was risking the country’s nascent economic recovery.
Stournaras acknowledged Greece’s “compliance ratio is still low”, but insisted many of the remaining reforms could be done through administrative acts rather than legislation.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview with Bild that he was looking forward to Greece’s presidency with great confidence. "All EU Member States are equal. The small countries also deserve respect. As for monitoring the reforms in Europe, that’s in the hands of the EU institutions anyway — especially the Commission, the Council and the troika, which is made up of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF", he said.
"Greece has expressly reiterated its commitment to the EU, implemented tough reforms, and made a deliberate decision to remain in the eurozone. It’s time to finally acknowledge everything Greece has achieved during the crisis. The country is not out of the woods yet. But it is on the right track. The Council presidency will help Greece out of the crisis - it will show people in Greece that their future lies in Europe. It will create a sense of identity and act as a source of self-confidence and pride. The Greek Council presidency is a great opportunity for the country and for Europe."
Full interview © Federal Ministry of Finance
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