Samaras, Barroso focus on positives as EU baton is passed

SYRIZA leader Tsipras boycotts ceremony in protest at the government’s agenda for the presidency

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Wednesday both sought to strike an upbeat note at an official ceremony for Greece’s assumption of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency, emphasizing 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.

Samaras referred to forthcoming European Parliament elections in May as an important landmark. “Voters will choose whether they want Europe or not,” Samaras said in response to questions about the stability of his government and the possibility of losses at the polls.

Barroso, for his part, acknowledged the risk of a rise in “extremism and populism” due to citizens protesting austerity but said, “I don’t expect these forces to win.”

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 – the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. “This is not the time to slow down the pace of reforms,” he said. “My point is very clear: Programs work, so we should not waste the efforts so far.”

He stressed that Greece was expected to emerge from its recession this year and noted that early talk of a “Grexit” had slowed recovery.

Barroso also lauded Greece’s role in its previous four EU presidencies, noting that it had played a pivotal role in pursuing EU enlargement and boosting institutions.

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.

At the press conference, Samaras took the opportunity to denounce Tsipras and SYRIZA as “anti-European and anti-Western.”

In a related development Wednesday, the head of the European Parliament’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, called for the “abolition” of Greece’s so-called troika of foreign lenders, whose envoys are due to return to Athens next week, accusing them of imposing “ruthless austerity” on Greeks.

Fears of protests disrupting the festivities Wednesday were not realized as security was tightened to protect dozens of foreign visitors. A small protest by leftists outside Athens University resulted in minor scuffles.