Greece defends 'harsh' reforms promised to creditors
Greece's govern-ment defended on Tuesday the billions worth of "harsh" new budget savings it has offered in talks with creditors, as some of the governing party's own lawmakers spoke out against them.
Greece has proposed measures worth €8 billion (US$9 billion), including increases to company and consumer taxes, to persuade the country's bailout creditors to release new loans it needs to avoid defaulting on its debts next week.
A decision is expected this week. Eurozone finance ministers are to meet today, Wednesday evening, followed by a European Union summit Thursday and Friday. Greece needs a decision before June 30, when its current bailout expires and it also faces a €1.6-billion loan repayment to the International Monetary Fund.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' Syriza party won elections in January on a promise to repeal the harsh budget cuts and tax increases that previous governments had imposed since 2010 in return for bailout loans.
backtrack on pledges
But with creditors withholding €7.2 billion of rescue loans and Greece's state coffers running dry, Tsipras has been forced to backtrack on many pledges. A debt default by Greece could result in much greater economic pain for the country - a potential run on the banks and even an exit from the euro currency union.
On Tuesday, Tsipras' government found it had some explaining to do to its own party and backers.
"There is full comprehension that there are measures in the proposal that are harsh, and they are measures that under different circumstances, if it was up to us, there was no way we would have taken," government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis told private Greek television station Antenna.
Sakellaridis noted that the proposed measures seek to increase taxes on those with higher incomes rather than on low-income families, salaried employees and pensioners.
But some party members were not swayed.
The proposals "cannot be supported, cannot be voted for," Syriza party lawmaker Eleni Sotiriou was quoted as telling the weekly Dromos tis Aristeras, or Road of the Left. "The responsibility for the political developments regarding the submission of such measures will lie with those who made these choices."
Another lawmaker, Dimitris Kodelas, echoed the sentiment. "Such an agreement cannot be voted on," he told To Vima radio. "The deal towards which we are moving is a deal which, by common admission, has nothing to do with our programme."
Labour Minister Panos Skourletis insisted the proposal, if accepted by the creditors, was a good one for Greece that included beneficial measures for workers.
A deal that will ensure Greece remains in the euro is likely to have enough parliamentary votes to pass, as some opposition lawmakers will almost certainly vote in favour.
But significant losses from the governing coalition of Syriza and its coalition partner, a small nationalist party, would be a blow to Tsipras and could lead to early elections.
"Each person will assume their own responsibilities" in a vote, Sakellaridis said.
"Clearly, a government that doesn't have the confidence of its deputies can't stand up. But I don't think we'll get to this point," the spokesman said, adding that "the only choice in this case would be a recourse to the polls and to the Greek people".
The uncertainty of the past few months has further hammered the Greek economy, while worried Greeks have pulled billions out of Greek banks for fear of restrictions being imposed on banking transactions, or of the country leaving the euro.
in the right direction
The government's proposal "is clearly moving in the right direction" to ensure the country can maintain international funding "and avert a disorderly path towards bankruptcy," said Simos Anastasopoulos, the head of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.
"On the other hand, the proposed measures put the burden on the private economy," he said, adding that the new taxes are certain to "lead to recession and in increase in unemployment".
Anastasopoulos suggested a different mix of reforms would be possible, but that nevertheless "a deal is by far better than no deal".
After a series of meetings in Brussels on Monday, European creditors say Greece's new reforms proposals offer a good basis to break a nearly five-month deadlock in talks over new loans.
Greece's new proposals "are tangible elements we can work with in an efficient way to reach an agreement," French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said.
"We need one last push (Wednesday) night so that the heads of state can sign off on the agreement. That is the time frame that seems most reasonable and that we can achieve," he said.
The IMF sounded less optimistic Monday, with its head, Christine Lagarde, describing the proposals as "still short of everything that we expected".
Hopes that a deal was at hand nevertheless boosted markets. The Stoxx 50 index of European shares was up 1.1 per cent, adding to the previous day's big gains of 4.1 per cent. In Athens, the stock exchange closed up 6.1 per cent, after closing up nine per cent on Monday.