Tsipras won’t act unilaterally, EU’s Schulz says

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday hosted the first European official to visit Greece since leftist SYRIZA formed a coalition government, with European Parliament President Martin Schulz declaring after talks in Athens that the two men agreed on many points “while others needed more discussion” and expressing his view that Tsipras’s government was not aiming to “follow its own course” independently of its European partners.

“You know that in many open discussions in Europe there is a concern, some concern that Tsipras will follow his own course. What I have concluded today is that is not the case,” Schulz said after his meeting with Tsipras.

The Greek premier, for his part, said that his government was aiming for “a comprehensive European and mutually beneficial solution on matters of common interest.” He noted that “it will take time” for such an agreement to be reached. But he insisted that his administration, which wants to renegotiate Greece’s loan commitments, is open to discussions. “We are negotiating with safety, we are guaranteeing stability,” he said.

Government sources said the visit conveyed the message that “Europe is talking to us.” They hope for more of the same on Friday when Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is due in Athens and is to hold talks with Tsipras as well as Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

But, behind the smiles for the cameras, there was pressure from foreign envoys, Kathimerini understands. Schulz pressed Tsipras to reach a decision on the extension of Greece’s European bailout, which is due to end on February 28, as quickly as possible to ensure the country does not find itself caught short. The German official also asked the premier to focus on presenting concrete examples of revenue-boosting measures before pressing demands for debt relief.

Sources said Tsipras assured Schulz that a key government priority was to crack down on tax evasion. The same sources indicated that the two men agreed on two key issues: that austerity policies cannot help Europe emerge from its debt crisis and that Greece’s public investment program should be excluded from deficit calculations.

Earlier on Thursday Tsipras also spoke to US President Barack Obama, who telephoned the leftist leader to congratulate him on his election victory. Obama told Tsipras that the United States, “as a longstanding friend and ally, looks forward to working closely with the new Greek government to help Greece return to a path of long-term prosperity.” The two men also discussed close cooperation on issues of European security and counterterrorism, according to a White House statement.

While Tsipras engaged in diplomacy, his ministers tried to forge ahead with SYRIZA’s planned anti-austerity reforms.

Alternate Minister for Administrative Reform Giorgos Katrougalos attempted to provide more information about the changes the government plans to make in the civil service.

Speaking to Skai TV, he said that the government would rehire some 3,500 public sector workers it believes have been wrongly sacked. These include the Finance Ministry cleaners, school guards and administrative employees at universities, who were all dismissed after being placed in a labor pool. Katrougalos said that former employees at the public broadcaster ERT, shut down overnight in June 2013, would be included in this number. He added that the rehiring would be balanced by the government taking on 3,500 fewer people in the public sector than had been previously planned. The former government’s plans called for 15,000 new hires to be made this year.

Katrougalos said that an internal mobility scheme, which would allow civil servants to be moved between departments, would continue in order to make up for shortages in some parts of the public sector.

The minister also said that he would meet with civil servants’ union ADEDY to discuss a new evaluation system after dismissing the one adopted by the previous government as “punitive.”

“The current evaluation system is not aimed at improving public services but at leading to dismissals,” said the former law professor. “I propose a system that will provide incentives for the good employees and will help those with problems improve.”