NEWS

Athens aims to settle debt issue while at EU helm

With Greece set to assume the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union during an official ceremony in Athens on Wednesday, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said Tuesday that he believed Athens would reach an agreement with its foreign creditors on two key issues during that period – on how to cover a funding gap for the next two years estimated at around 14 billion euros and on the nature of the debt relief Greece has been lobbying for.

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 writedown of the country’s debt.

Apart from the anticipated resumption of talks with the troika next week, Stournaras said the government was preparing for the forthcoming Eurogroup and Ecofin summits in Brussels, on January 27 and 28 respectively, where the agenda is expected to be dominated by non-Greek issues. Topping the agenda will be fiscal advice to EU member states that are not involved in EU-backed rescue programs as well as economic governance and regulations for more effective fiscal adjustment, Stournaras said.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is to receive Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and a host of other foreign dignitaries in Athens on Wednesday for an official ceremony to mark Greece’s assumption of the EU presidency on January 1. The festivities are to be centered around two landmarks – Zappeion Hall and the Athens Concert Hall – with Samaras and Barroso expected to give a joint press conference from the former site at around 5.30 p.m. ahead of the actual assumption ceremony at the Athens Concert Hall. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy is expected to arrive in Athens in time for the inauguration, which will be attended by several commissioners.

Security will be tight throughout the day with a heightened police presence and traffic restrictions across much of the city center. The police issued a statement Tuesday evening imposing an 18-hour ban on protests in central Athens, starting at 6 a.m. on Wednesday. A similar protest ban was enforced last July when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble visited Athens and in October 2012 when Chancellor Angela Merkel flew in.

In a related development on Tuesday, European Parliament President Martin Schulz confirmed, via his spokesman, that a scheduled visit to Athens on Wednesday by members of a committee set up to probe the role and activities of the troika in Greece had been postponed until after the EU presidency festivities.

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