Crisis talks on Greece to stretch into the weekend

After yet another inconclusive Eurogroup in Brussels Thursday, finance ministers agreed that more talks were required to bridge enduring gaps between Greece and its creditors with another Eurogroup to be held over the weekend, most likely on Saturday.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the leaders of the country’s international creditors – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde – held long talks late on Wednesday night and Thursday morning before eurozone finance ministers reconvened for the fourth time in a week.

Technical teams also met to discuss the details of two different proposals – one from Greece and one from the creditors – for the so-called prior actions that could lead to the conclusion of a previous program and the release of 7.2 billion euros in loans that Greece desperately needs.

Greek government sources said Athens’s proposal was largely unchanged from the document it submitted to creditors on Monday, setting out some 8 billion euros’ worth of measures.

Sources attributed the negative atmosphere in the meeting to a bloc of ministers from five countries “influenced by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble,” who was downbeat in his comments to reporters about the prospects for a deal. But Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis indicated that “several” of his peers had expressed criticism of the creditors’ proposal.

Indicative of the fluid nature of the situation was the fact that close aides to Tsipras were unable to determine whether the premier would return to Athens after the end of a two-day summit of European Union leaders Friday or stay in Brussels for more talks with representatives of Greece’s creditors.

Arriving at the summit Thursday, Tsipras sought to appear upbeat. “European history is full of disagreements, negotiations and, at the end, compromises,” he told reporters. “So, after the comprehensive Greek proposals, I am confident that we will reach a compromise.”

Government sources indicated, however, that the mood was far from conciliatory. According to one source, European Council President Donald Tusk said to Tsipras, “The game is over,” prompting the premier to respond: “Greece has 1.5 million unemployed people, 3 million poor people and thousands living only with pension of their grandparents. That is no game.”

Also in Brussels Thursday was Panos Kammenos, the head of junior coalition partner Independent Greeks. He expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached, though he noted that it should tackle the issue of Greece’s debt.

European officials have been reluctant to address the thorny matter of Greece’s huge debt burden until the country has adopted and enforced reforms, though the IMF insists debt relief is necessary.

The creditors’ proposal offered some concessions in the sensitive area of pensions. For instance, the creditors proposed that the benefit for low-income pensioners (EKAS) be phased out from the end of 2019, two years later than their previous proposal. But they have insisted on a more thorough overhaul of the Greek value-added tax system, with the revocation of exemptions and with more products and services, including restaurants, being pushed to the highest rate of 23 percent.

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