Coalition crisis talks to continue

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his coalition partners arranged a new round of crisis talks for Wednesday after a meeting on Monday aimed at resolving a serious dispute over the closure of state broadcaster ERT failed to yield a compromise, though a court decision appeared to offer a basis for a settlement.

The Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, appeared to offer a stopgap solution, ruling that the government has the right to close ERT but limited programming should continue to be aired on the broadcaster’s frequency.

The ruling appeared to be a formula that would allow Samaras to proceed with plans to overhaul ERT while appeasing objections by coalition partners. But interpretations of the decision varied.

In a statement after the meeting, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said the court ruling had “vindicated” PASOK and stressed the need for an overhaul of the government, hinting at a reshuffle. “The talks were about ERT, but the main issue is for the government to operate as a real coalition, not with New Democracy just tolerating its partners,” Venizelos said. He called on Samaras to “examine the ruling” and take “bold moves.”

Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left made a similar statement, condemning the premier for taking the “unilateral action” to close ERT.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, who also attended the talks, had a different interpretation; he said it determined that ERT should stay closed while a temporary program is broadcast. “The big issue for the government is for radical reforms to continue,” he said, expressing hopes that coalition leaders would “converge” in fresh talks tomorrow.

During the talks, Samaras and Venizelos both submitted written proposals for breaking the deadlock, sources said. The premier’s was a nine-point proposal foreseeing the establishment of a committee to hire staff for the crossover period from ERT to the new broadcaster, the launch of a debate on the new organization and the appointment of a deputy minister to oversee the overhaul. Venizelos’s proposal meanwhile reportedly outlined an alternative plan for some 2,000 layoffs in the civil service though it remained unclear whether dismissals would involve staff at ERT.

As the coalition partners debated, a few blocks away, the leader of the main leftist opposition SYRIZA, Alexis Tsipras, addressed a rally in Syntagma Square. The leftist described the ERT affair as “a firework that went off in [Samaras’s] hands.”

Speculation had been rife over the weekend about the deepening rift in the government possibly triggering early elections and putting Greece’s economic reform program – and rescue loans – in jeopardy.

The need for political stability in Greece was underlined by European officials on Monday. Speaking in Brussels, EC spokesman Olivier Bailly noted that Greece’s political leaders ought to show responsibility to ensure political stability and fiscal consolidation.

European Monetary and Economic Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn was tougher, declaring that “the last thing Greece needs is a new crisis” and calling for a swift solution to the government’s dispute.

Meanwhile, the president of the European People’s Party (EPP), Wilfried Martens, expressed support for Samaras. In a statement, Martens said that ERT’s closure was a inevitable, noting that numerous efforts for the national broadcaster’s restructuring while in operation had failed.