NEWS

Eurogroup sees progress on Greece but wants more, soon

There were no positive or negative surprises at Monday’s Eurogroup for Greece as eurozone finance ministers confirmed in writing that there had been progress in talks between Athens and its lenders but that intensive work needs to be done over the next few days.

“We welcomed the progress that has been achieved so far,” said the ministers in a joint statement after the meeting in Brussels. “We note that the reorganization and streamlining of working procedures has made an acceleration possible, and has contributed to a more substantial discussion,” they added in reference to recent changes in Greece’s negotiation team and its style.

“At the same time, we acknowledged that more time and effort are needed to bridge the gaps on the remaining open issues,” the statement added, calling for an acceleration in the Brussels Group negotiations.

The euro-area finance ministers also made it clear that more loans would be disbursed to Greece only if there is a “staff-level agreement” on the conclusion of the program review. Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem indicated in comments afterward that Greece’s lenders might agree to break up the 7.2 billion euros in bailout funding into smaller tranches based on the gradual implementation of whatever is included in any final agreement.

“There are time constraints and liquidity constraints and hopefully we will reach an agreement before time runs out and before money runs out,” said Dijsselbloem.

Speaking in a separate news conference, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said he felt there has been “considerable convergence” between Athens and its creditors and that they would try to wrap up an agreement in the next couple of weeks, before the government’s liquidity problems become “binding.”

The Greek minister said there had been “substantive progress” in talks on issues such as settling nonperforming loans (NPLs), reforming value-added tax (VAT) and bolstering the independence of Greece’s tax authority. However, he suggested that there were still differences over pension and labor reforms. “Just cutting pensions is not a reform,” he said.

Varoufakis confirmed that Greece would today meet a repayment of around 750 million euros to the International Monetary Fund.

He also insisted that his relations with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are excellent. “Our meetings are always friendly, particularly interesting and constructive,” said the former economics professor. “Today we had our friendliest meeting yet,” he added.

Ahead of the meeting, Schaeuble suggested that he would support Athens if it decides to hold a referendum on any deal agreed with creditors.

“If the Greek government thinks it must hold a referendum, then let it hold a referendum,” he said. “That might even be a helpful measure for the Greek people to decide whether it is ready to accept what is necessary, or whether it wants something different.”

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