Mounting pressure on Athens to stick to rules

Tue, Jun 19, 2012, 01:00

The troika is wary about Greek commitment to plan because of past reneging, writes ARTHUR BEESLEYin Brussels

EUROPE IS adopting a hard line on the Greek bailout terms as Antonis Samaras attempts to form a government to work the EU-IMF programme for the country.

There may still be a little leeway to extend the deadline on some key targets but the EU powers are adamant that the core elements of the package will not be diluted.

This position reflects anxiety that a new government may follow in the path of its predecessors by backsliding on key programme targets, a consistent feature under the first, unsuccessful, bailout and a source of considerable frustration with Greek leaders of all stripes.

A key concern here is to ensure Samaras, who has never fully embraced the EU-IMF plan and campaigned to renegotiate it, sticks to his word.

Again, the first bailout shows that promises made in Brussels by Greek leaders are not necessarily kept back in Athens.

The last elected government was run by the Pasok socialist party, which flunked many key reforms and suffered confidence- sapping defections whenever it did follow the instructions of the EU-IMF troika. Samaras cannot rule without Pasok so European officials see potential for yet more delay and prevarication.

It is for this reason, not to mention the strong electoral showing for the anti-bailout leftists of the Syriza movement, that the EU authorities are reluctant to leave anything to chance this time round.

Even though the prospect of a Samaras-led government removes the immediate threat over Greece’s euro membership, the sweeping scope of the austerity plan means that any pro-bailout government will encounter internal strife and brickbats from Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.

Samaras said yesterday that Greece was determined to fulfil all of its international commitments.

However, he also insisted the rescue package would have to be revised.

“We will simultaneously have to make some necessary amendments to the bailout agreement, in order to relieve the people of crippling unemployment and huge hardships.”

This kind of talk does not go down well in Brussels, where officials say Samaras’s obstructive stance in opposition means he is still not fully trusted in Europe.

At key junctures, the political positions he adopted helped make a bad situation worse in Greece. This, in turn, made things worse for everyone else. So Samaras is seen as a man who has yet to establish his credentials in the European arena.

The basic attitude in Brussels and many other capital cities is that there should be no big deviation from the preordained plan. Painful as the road ahead will be, the ambitious reform initiative is held to be in Greece’s own best interest.

In Berlin, particularly, the argument goes that this is essentially an IMF plan to transform the state and that it represents the thinking of the “best minds in the world” on these matters. The “best minds” have it easy, however, they don’t have to pay the political price of austerity.

At the same time, there is some speculation that Europe may fiddle around at the margins of the plan to ensure Samaras can actually form a government and set about its work.

The thinking here is that a double dose of elections in two months has already left Greece far behind the deadlines set out in the February agreement. A further factor is that the economic climate is getting worse, making it more difficult to hit the original targets.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has hinted at a one- year extension in respect of key fiscal targets. However, the argument was made yesterday that it is finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble who speaks for Berlin on these matters.

The true position would appear that Europe is willing to do some kind of a deal with Samaras but that he must produce a government first.

There is a certain urgency in the situation. Greece could run out of money next month for public pay and pensions if it does not receive its next round of aid. Euro zone governments withheld a €1 billion payment in the aftermath of the inconclusive May election so it is open to their representatives on the board of the EFSF bailout fund to sanction the transfer of that money whenever a government is formed.

A bigger question surrounds the release of the next round of bailout aid for Greece, which amounts to no less than €31.2 billion and is due to be paid by the autumn.

Whatever about a modest extension of some deadlines, the clear message from euro zone leaders is that the only way for the country to get this money is for the Samaras government to sign up to the EU-IMF plan. If the payment is not made, Greece would default on a €3.8 billion debt redemption in August.

The troika will return to Athens whenever a government is formed. Another tough negotiation is in store.