This year will be the year of reform implementation, Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis told reporters yesterday. In a conference organized by the Foreign Press Association, Alogoskoufis said that the planning stage for reforms was now over and that they were entering the implementation stage. He said crucial reforms concerned the management of public expenditures, the development of state assets and the extension of tax reforms to individuals. Alogoskoufis said a major part of cleaning up public finances is the reform of the operations of non-listed public utilities, where a lack of transparency is common. The government passed a law restructuring the utility companies in November. He also told reporters the government is, at present, undertaking measures designed to make the use of EU aid through the Community Support Framework programs more effective, promote the use of technology and redesign the country’s export policy. These measures are aimed at boosting the GDP growth rate to 3.8 percent in 2006 from an estimated 3.6-3.7 percent in 2005. A recovery in the eurozone will help the government achieve its growth target for 2006, Alogoskoufis said. Reporters repeatedly asked Alogoskoufis about accusations leveled at him by the Federation of Bank Employees’ Unions (OTOE) that he was the mastermind behind the banks’ decision to no longer participate in collective pay talks with OTOE but to sign deals at each bank instead. The minister denied he had anything to do with the banks’ move and remarked that it was strange for OTOE to call for government intervention when before it had always told the government not to meddle. Alogoskoufis said the government does not interfere in the collective bargaining procedure and added that banks are essentially private-sector, independently operating entities. Only ATEBank and the Postal Savings Bank can now be considered state banks, he added. The government retains investments in National and Emporiki banks and has appointed their present CEOs. On Emporiki, Alogoskoufis said that the government wants to start talks with French bank Credit Agricole to see if it wants to increase its stake and undertake the bank’s management. The government is willing to sell its remaining 9 percent stake in the bank, Alogoskoufis said, adding that Credit Agricole no longer has the right of first refusal to buy the stake. «There is no right of first refusal, but we are continuing a process begun in 2001 by the previous government where the preference is for Credit Agricole,» he said. «But the process is open.» Referring to the need for social security reforms, Alogoskoufis said the dialogue with employers and unions will not start from scratch, indicating that some proposals, such as raising the retirement age, are off the table. Reform must be based on consensus, he said, adding that the existence of many studies on the ability of the system to achieve adequate financing has created confusion. He added that the underlying cause of social security’s future financing problems, a low birth rate, will be tackled through tax incentives.