Greece assumes EU helm

Greece assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union on Wednesday even as the government continues efforts to revive the battered economy and to contend with growing political and social upheaval.

In their New Year statements, politicians sought to appear upbeat about the prospects of Greece emerging from a six-year recession that has razed living standards with many referring to forecasts for Greece to post a primary surplus next year and to return to international bond markets.

In a televised exchange with reporters on Wednesday, President Karolos Papoulias insisted that “2014 will be better than previous years.”

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras struck a similar tone on New Year’s Eve following a mini cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and other key ministers at the Maximos Mansion.

“We did better than expected this year and the same will happen in 2014,” Stournaras told reporters after the talks, noting that the chief aim was for Greece to return to the markets. Samaras declared that Greece would emerge from the memorandum next year. “In 2014, Greece will venture out to the markets again and start becoming a normal country,” he said.

Samaras’s deputy and coalition partner Evangelos Venizelos, who is also foreign minister, focused on Greece’s goals at the helm of the six-month EU presidency, which it has assumed from Lithuania. The chief priorities of the presidency will be to create jobs, work toward a European banking union, and curb undocumented immigration, Venizelos said.

Samaras is to present these priorities in a speech before the European Parliament on January 15, a week after hosting EU officials at a ceremony inaugurating Greece’s assumption of the EU presidency at the Zappeio Hall.

January 15 is also the day that representatives of Greece’s troika of foreign creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – are due back in Athens to resume talks on economic reforms that were halted last month after limited progress.

The focus of the new review, which Athens must complete successfully to clinch the next 4.9-billion-euro tranche of rescue aid, will be a projected fiscal gap for next year, which the troika puts at 1.2 billion euros, as well as a civil service overhaul and a lagging privatization drive.

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