Athens on Tuesday secured the political statement it had hoped for from outgoing US President Barack Obama, who underlined the need for debt relief for Greece and for the European Union to ease off excessive austerity.
“We cannot simply look to austerity as a strategy,” Obama said told a joint media conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
“Our argument has always been that when the economy contracted this fast, when unemployment is this high, that there also has to be a growth agenda to go with it and it is very difficult to imagine the kind of growth strategy that’s needed without some debt relief mechanism.”
Obama also underlined the importance of reforms that will ensure Greece is attractive for the investments that will allow it to return to growth.
He said it was crucial to ease hardship and improve the daily lives of Greek citizens.
Tsipras struck a similar tone, declaring that “Greece’s economy and society, after seven whole years, cannot take any more austerity.”
He expressed optimism that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would respond positively to Greece’s demands, noting that as a German she is consistent about honoring agreements and as a politician she has a sense of responsibility for the future of Europe.
According to sources, in his talks with Obama, Tsipras asked him to press Greece’s creditors to ensure that no “unnecessary obstacles” transpire in the bailout review that is currently under way and which must be completed for talks on debt relief to begin.
Obama also referred to United Nations-backed Cyprus peace talks, saying that even though “success is not guaranteed,” there is a “real prospect for resolving” the decades-old dispute, in fact “the best they have seen for some time” as both leaders, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and the Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, appear committed to a solution. If they reach an agreement, he said, everyone will support it.
Nonetheless, Tsipras expressed Greece’s firm opposition to a solution that would entail the presence of Turkish troops on the island. Both men also rejected the “anachronistic” system of guarantees that Turkey insists on preserving as part of a solution.
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who met Obama earlier on Tuesday, expressed the same sentiments and insisted that any solution should be based on international law and the acquis communautaire, which would exclude the existence of occupying troops on the island.
In a bid to overcome this sticking point with regard to the system of guarantees, Washington floated the idea for the creation of two military bases on Cyprus – a Greek and a Turkish one – during a meeting in September between American Vice President Joe Biden and Akinci.
The importance the Obama administration is attaching to the efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem is highlighted by the fact, observes say, that he is accompanied on his visit by US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, a high-ranking official steeped in experience with regard to peace efforts on Cyprus.
Moreover, Washington diplomats have repeatedly said that a Cyprus solution would pave the way for the exploitation of the huge natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Apart from Cyprus, Greece’s overall foreign policy challenges were also highlighted during Obama’s meeting with Pavlopoulos, who lambasted Turkey’s “unacceptable and inconceivable” stance as expressed by its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has repeatedly bemoaned the Treaty of Lausanne in 1924, which demarcated the borders between the two countries, as unfair on Turkey.
He also made a reference to Greece’s name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which, he said, insists on claiming a name for itself which apart from being historically unsubstantiated also reveals an irredentism that implies it disputes existing borders.
The mood was more relaxed at a dinner Pavlopoulos hosted later in the day for Obama, who stressed the ties of friendship that bind Greece and America and quoted from the ancient statesman and orator Pericles.
As Greek and American officials dined at the Presidential Mansion, hundreds of hooded youths clashed with police a few blocks away.
The unrest shifted to the neighborhood of Exarchia later on Tuesday night, with police finding bags full of hundreds of homemade firebombs in the area, according to sources.
There will be tight security for a second day Wednesday in Athens and around the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center on the southern coast of the capital, where Obama is to deliver a speech at 1 p.m.
The site of the Acropolis will be closed to the public all day as the outgoing president has said he would like to visit it.
Later this afternoon, Obama is to fly to Berlin, where he is to hold talks with Merkel that are expected to focus on the repercussions of Donald Trump’s election as US president, austerity politics and the Greek situation and Europe’s refugee crisis.
In his comments on Tuesday, Obama praised Greeks for showing "extraordinary compassion" in their response to refugees.