NEWS

Reform vow fuels hope and ire

Foreign officials on Wednesday issued cautious messages of support following a pledge by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos to accelerate reforms, kick-start an ambitious privatization program and proceed with massive cutbacks to Greece?s grossly indebted public sector.

A European Commission spokesman welcomed the government?s calls for fast-tracking reforms. ?It shows that some additional work did need to be done,» said Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio. ?The European Commission is pleased that work under way has been speeded up,? he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel?s support was less direct but clear. ?The euro cannot be allowed to fail, it won?t fail,? said Merkel, who earlier in the week had been criticized by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder for her handling of the Greek crisis.

Late on Tuesday, Venizelos had sought to appease growing impatience among Greece?s foreign creditors by promising to push through reforms that are a prerequisite if Athens is to receive a sixth tranche of rescue funding and remain solvent. The minister caused a stir by setting the scene for wage cuts and dismissals across the public sector by saying that all employees of the civil service would be liable for ?labor standby status? which would see them receiving just 60 percent of their basic salary for 12 months before their status is reassessed.

The plans for overhauling the public sector prompted passionate reactions on Wednesday – from politicians and unions. According to sources, most of the Cabinet is behind Venizelos on trimming the state sector. Health Minister Andreas Loverdos remarked to a parliamentary committee that, ?1 million employees have been burdening the other 10 million.? ?The fact that civil service positions are permanent is what got us into this mess in the first place,? he said.

The civil servants? union, ADEDY, reacted to the news of the imminent onslaught on their sector with an angry statement, noting that Venizelos?s announcement signaled ?immediate sackings? in the civil service and that the government?s broader austerity drive would lead to ?the breakdown of public services and what is left of the welfare state.?

Venizelos avoided making additional statements on Wednesday, following Tuesday?s bombshell, but opposition politicians intensified their criticism of the government?s austerity drive.

One exception was Sotiris Hatzigakis, an MP of conservative New Democracy and former justice minister, who broke with his party line by suggesting that ND support socialist PASOK?s efforts to extricate the country from its debt crisis.

Earlier in the day, ND?s party spokesman Yiannis Michelakis accused the government of ?suddenly rushing to implement everything that it had been trying to avoid but had previously committed to? with the country?s international creditors.