Government returns to the grindstone

Prime Minister George Papandreou and his Cabinet were to return to work on Monday to continue with their Herculean task of pushing through unpopular structural reforms and securing much-needed international aid to get the beleaguered economy back on track.

In a speech on New Year?s Eve, Papandreou indicated that his administration was prepared for this challenge, heralding 2011 as a ?year of change.?

?The participation of us all is the prerequisite for success,? said Papandreou, adding that ?by participation I do not mean new burdens.?

Speculation about new austerity measures aside, the next few weeks are believed to be critical as the next visit by Greece?s creditors is due in February ahead of the scheduled disbursement in March of 15 billion euros – the fourth and biggest tranche of rescue funding. Meanwhile, Greece?s European Union partners are expected to decide on whether to grant an extension to the government to repay the 110 billion euros it has been pledged by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has already backed the idea of an extension. It is now down to Greece?s EU partners to give their verdict.

Of the structural reforms Greece promised the EU and IMF it would push through in exchange for the multi-billion-euro rescue package, the opening up of dozens of so-called closed professions – covering a range of occupations from pharmacists to taxi drivers – is currently topping the agenda. The final draft of a multifaceted bill introducing the changes is to be debated by the Cabinet later this month and is due to be voted through Parliament next month.

The government, meanwhile, must also push through a deep restructuring of public transport companies and other state enterprises with the aim of raising some 800 million euros.

Authorities must not only get the economy back on track but also restore social justice, President Karolos Papoulias told reporters on New Year?s Day. ?Social cohesion is gained by stamping out injustice being committed against the Greek people,? he said. ?Those who evade tax and then visit state hospitals for treatment must not be tolerated.?