Venizelos breaks ranks, challenges euro referendum

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos has heaped doubt on the future of Prime Minister George Papandreou and his government after distancing himself from the idea of holding a referendum on whether Greeks want to remain part of the eurozone or not.

Papandreou emerged from talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Cannes on Wednesday to announce plans to hold the ballot on December 4.

However, in a written statement this morning, Venizelos, who is also deputy prime minister, made it clear that he does not agree with the premier?s proposal and said the priority was to remain in the single currency so as to protect Greece?s economy and financial institutions.

?Greece?s place in the euro is a historic achievement that cannot be put into question,? said the finance minister. ?This established right of the Greek people cannot be put under scrutiny in a referendum.

?The main prerequisite for the country to feel safe and stable is for it to actually be safe and stable. Greek banks are totally protected as an integral part of the European banking system. That was clear from the discussion in Cannes last night.?

Venizelos, who let it be known through aides earlier this week that he had not been informed about Papandreou?s desire to call a referendum, suggested that a bid to find political consensus would be more productive than a ballot on the euro.

He expressed concern that the next tranche of EU-IMF emergency loans would be held up until the result of any referendum would be known.

?The priority must be to secure the disbursement before the end of the year of the new loan package, which gives Greece another 130 billion euros and leads to Greece?s debt being cut by about 100 billion euros.

?If we want to protect the country, we must apply the decisions taken on October 26 under conditions of national unity and political understanding. This has to happen as soon as possible.?

The finance minister made an appeal to opposition parties and particularly New Democracy to work with the government.

?Everything that is discussed at a European and international level is relevant to the opposition,? he said. ?If its position was positive, that would help guarantee the country?s reliability internationally.

?The question is not our domestic political balances, nor the future of parties or political personalities but saving the country and getting it back on its feet through the only viable process that has been provided by the October 28 agreement.?