MPs give first nod to more austerity

Socialist party MPs on Wednesday rallied together and took the first step toward securing crucial rescue funding for Greece by voting in favor of a new raft of austerity measures in principle.

However an attempt by Prime Minister George Papandreou to find common ground with the leader of the main conservative opposition New Democracy, Antonis Samaras, failed miserably, leaving the gulf between the two men apparently bigger than ever.

After two days of vehement debate in Parliament, the controversial bill – which includes new wage and pension cuts, public sector layoffs and changes to collective bargaining rules – passed last night with all 154 PASOK MPs voting in favor. There were 141 votes against with five absent from the roll call.

However the bill will not pass into law until a second vote – on separate articles – is approved on Thursday. This vote too is expected to pass as only one PASOK MP, former Labor Minister Louka Katseli, has said she will object, by voting down the article on collective bargaining. Most PASOK deputies are expected to approve the changes, albeit reluctantly, as the stakes are so high.

European Union leaders are to meet Sunday to decide on the release of 8 billion euros to Greece, part of a 110-billion-euro bailout agreed last year, and on a broader rescue framework for the bloc. Greece has said it will run out of money next month without the aid.

The urgency of the situation compelled Papandreou to invite Samaras to a meeting on Tuesday night in another bid to foster cross-party consensus. But the talks failed to yield any common ground as did the premier?s meetings with the heads of smaller opposition parties.

Samaras spoke in unusually critical tones of Papandreou. ?I have nothing to say with someone who is in a state of panic and who reviles everyone,? he said. The ND leader, clearly angered at the PM?s critical rhetoric about his party, also snubbed the premier?s request that they attend Sunday?s EU summit together. Samaras said he would go to Brussels, but alone.

Later in the day, government spokesman Ilias Mossialos accused Samaras of shirking responsibility. ?He is looking for an alibi to once more avoid contributing to the national effort being made with the sacrifices of the Greek people,? Mossialos said. ?New Democracy is the only opposition party in Europe that refuses to assume even its most rudimentary responsibility to help its country,? he added.

Before the vote on Wednesday, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos also stressed the critical nature of Greece?s decisions ahead of the summit. ?From now and until Sunday were are fighting the battle of all battles,? he said.

Meanwhile it emerged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet were holding a crisis meeting on Wednesday to prepare for the weekend summit.

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