Greek leader seeks 'breathing space'

Wed, Aug 22, 2012, 01:00

Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras started a European charm offensive today with an appeal to Germans for more time to meet Athens' borrowing obligations, but he may struggle to make his case in a series of meetings this week with EU leaders.

"All we want is a bit of 'air to breathe' to get the economy running and to increase state income. More time does not automatically mean more money," Mr Samaras said in an interview with Germany's mass-market Bild newspaper, which has often taken a ferociously sceptical line on bailing out Greece.

"Let me be very explicit: we demand no additional money. We stand by our commitments and by fulfilling all our requirements. We have to crank up growth because that decreases the financial gaps," Mr Samaras added in the interview, which ran hours before he begins talks in Athens with euro zone chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Appointed in June after two tumultuous parliamentary elections, Mr Samaras hopes to persuade Luxembourg premier Juncker, who chairs the Eurogroup of 17 governments which use the common currency, that the debt-laden Greek nation has the will to ram through unpopular reforms and deserves more time to do it.

With cash coffers running empty and renewed talk of a Greek euro zone exit without more aid, Mr Samaras is under pressure to convince European leaders that Greece has finally mustered the political courage to fulfil promises under its latest bailout.

Mr Juncker, the most influential European policymaker to visit Athens since the conservative-led government took power on June 20th, is expected to tell Mr Samaras bluntly that Greece must carry out promised cuts and that little room for leeway exists.

In response to Mr Samaras's comments to Bild, the Dutch finance minister gave a rapid taste of attitudes in the euro zone's less indebted northern states, questioning the idea of extending the time granted to Athens to meet its commitments.

"If it concerns delaying reforms and budget cuts, then it is not a good idea," Jan Kees de Jager told reporters.

Such messages are likely to be hammered home again to the Greek leader when he travels to Berlin on Friday to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel and to Paris a day later for talks with French president Francois Hollande.

Shortly after being elected, Mr Samaras's government promised he would tour Europe to seek two more years to hit targets under Greece's €130-billion bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

But faced with a lack of European appetite for cutting Greece more slack, the government has since toned down its rhetoric on the issue and now expects merely to broach the idea during talks this week rather than formally requesting it.

"We must first re-establish our relationship with European partners that has been seriously damaged," said a Greek government official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. "This is most crucial. Talking about certain parameters then comes at a second stage."

European paymaster Germany, whose patience over Greece has worn thin, has already said it will not soften its demands from the twice-bailed out country.


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