Tsipras pledges reform to divided European Parliament


Alexis Tsipras strode in to a Greek hero's welcome in the European Parliament on Wednesday, from allies on the left but also from far-right nationalists who hope Greece is about to start breaking up the euro, and the EU.

The young prime minister, looking relaxed after EU leaders handed him a Sunday deadline to secure a bailout deal, pledged to deliver sweeping reforms of an economy crippled not just by recent, creditor-imposed austerity but by decades of corruption and political connivance with powerful vested interests.

He also had to sit through angry lectures from lawmakers in Strasbourg who accused him of failing to make good on promises of change, of misleading voters who backed him in a referendum rejecting credit terms and of disregarding poor fellow Europeans whose taxes have gone toward lending Greece billions already.

"Let me assure the house that, quite apart from the crisis, we will continue with our reform undertakings," Tsipras said.

After flying in from a late-night summit in Brussels, he was mobbed by leftist allies as he entered the chamber and greeted by British and other Eurosceptics on the right holding up signs reading "OXI", in Greek, or "NO" – Tsipras's campaign slogan in last week's referendum on the previous EU bailout offer.

"We demand an agreement with our neighbours," he said, declaring the vote on Sunday gave him a mandate for the request.

"But one which gives us a sign that we are on a long-lasting basis exiting from the crisis, which will demonstrate there's light at the end of the tunnel."

He spoke after European Council President Donald Tusk told parliament: "The stark reality is that we have only four days left to find an ultimate agreement."

Tsipras gave no detail on what legislation he would propose this week to meet conditions from international lenders, though he said Greece needed to reform state finances and labour laws.

Defending a lack of action from his government since it was elected in January with a mandate to ease austerity, he said: "We have spent more time negotiating than we did governing."

Vested interests

But the centrist leader in parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, won applause of his own when he said: "I am angry because you are talking about reforms but we never see concrete proposals."

Tsipras appeared to be jotting notes as Verhofstadt, once prime minister of Belgium, ran down a list of suggestions that included privatising banks and ending Greece's special treatment for shipping magnates, the military and the Orthodox Church.

Warning that Greece was "sleepwalking" into losing the euro that the vast majority of its people want to keep, he said: "Show you are a real leader and not a false prophet."

Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, said, however, that the Greek crisis simply confirmed a terminal split – a new "Berlin Wall" – between the economies of northern and southern Europe that made the euro and the European Union unworkable.

"The European project is actually beginning to die," Farage said, addressing Tsipras, who showed no emotion. "Frankly, if you've got the courage, you should lead the Greek people out of the eurozone with your head held high."

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen agreed, prompting one of Tsipras's SYRIZA allies to tell far-right parties to stop using the troubles of pro-European Greeks for their own ends.

Winding up for himself after more than three hours of argument, Tsipras appealed across the partisan divides, noting he had backing from his own opponents in Athens to keep Greece in the euro. "We have ideological differences, we are divided on issues," he said. "But this is a crucial time to join forces."

And in the spirit of a debate peppered with talk of ancient Greek democracy, he cited Sophocles in asking for indulgence for Athens: "He taught us," he said, "That there are times when the greatest law of all human laws is justice for the human being."