There was strong support on Friday from the prime minister’s office for Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, who came under fire from New Democracy and opposition MPs for his insistence that heating oil tax should not be reduced, despite the rise in pollution from the burning of wood, as it would encourage smuggling.
The issue of the air pollution caused by the increasing use of fireplaces by households around Greece has become a key political issue over the last few days but Stournaras insisted on Christmas Day that there was no way he would approve a reduction in the heating oil tax, which was raised in 2012 to the same level as the levy on vehicle fuel.
Instead, the government announced a series of emergency measures on Thursday, including switching off heating systems in public buildings and banning the use of diesel-powered vehicles, to combat smog over major cities when the particulate matter exceeded 150 micrograms per cubic meter.
This led to the government and Stournaras coming under a barrage of criticism on Friday. SYRIZA called the coalition’s policy “barbarous” and dismissed the new anti-smog measures as “a joke.” “As long as the government does not reduce the heating oil tax and does not provide free electricity for poor households, the ‘smog of poverty’ will spread and more people will freeze,” the leftists said in a statement.
Reports suggested that a number of New Democracy lawmakers were unhappy with Stournaras’s statement. Before Christmas 41 conservative MPs had asked for a reduction in heating oil tax.
“Mr Stournaras’s ignorance of danger is damaging for him and the government,” Naftemporiki newspaper quoted an experienced ND deputy as saying, without naming the MP.
The message coming out of the Maximos Mansion, however, was that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras continues to be fully behind Stournaras and backs his judgment on the issue of heating oil tax. There was, however, some regret at the premier’s office that during the Christmas Day news conference Stournaras suggested that a reduction in the levy would only benefit rich Greeks who wanted to heat their swimming pools.
Nevertheless, the government was also quick to deny rumors that Samaras would split the Finance Ministry in two, leaving Stournaras in charge of dealing with the troika and giving the other responsibilities to the prime minister’s close adviser Chrysanthos Lazaridis.
The latter said that he had no interest in undermining Stournaras. The finance minister said the speculation was “fantasy.”