German parliament set to back talks on new Greek bailout

German parliament set to back talks on new Greek bailout

German lawmakers are expected to give the government their clear backing on Friday to start negotiations on a third bailout program for Greece, despite Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble questioning whether it will succeed.

Lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, already voted overwhelmingly in favour of the eurozone opening talks with Athens in test ballots held on Thursday.

These results indicate that Merkel is likely to get the mandate she needs from the Bundestag lower house of parliament, with some opposition parties also expected to vote "yes" at the end of the debate, which began shortly after 10 a.m. (0800 GMT).

The positive soundings from lawmakers came despite popular misgivings in Germany about funnelling more aid to Athens – reservations deepened by Schaeuble suggesting the better option for Greece may be to take a "time-out" from the eurozone.

"Seven reasons why the Bundestag should vote 'no' today," ran a headline in the mass-selling Bild daily, listing "Grexit is the better solution" and "our grandchildren will pay" among its reasons.

The Greek parliament approved the new bailout offer in the early hours of Thursday and later in the day the European Central Bank increased emergency funding to keep the country's banks from collapse.

European Union finance ministers also approved 7 billion euros in bridge loans to Greece, allowing it to avoid defaulting on a bond payment to the ECB next Monday and clear its arrears with the IMF.

These moves have lowered the risk of Grexit – a Greek exit from the euro – at least for the time being.

With Merkel under domestic pressure from lawmakers who have lost trust in Greece, the country's creditors agreed a tough deal at the weekend demanding that Athens cut pensions, raise value-added tax, and set aside 50 billion euros ($54 billion) of state assets to sell off.

Germany, the eurozone country which has contributed most to Greece's two bailouts since 2010, secured the terms it had pressed for. Nevertheless, Schaeuble repeated on Thursday the suggestion he made in the weekend negotiations that Greece might be better off temporarily leaving the eurozone – a view that resonates with some of his fellow conservatives.

Conservative lawmaker Mark Helfrich told Deutschlandfunk radio he would vote "no," adding: "This is about ruined trust."

In a sign of frustration with Athens, 48 conservatives in Thursday's test vote opposed new negotiations, according to participants.

During a five-hour debate, many critics expressed doubt about the Greek government's willingness to implement reforms. In February, 29 conservatives voted against an extension of Greece's second bailout.

Both Merkel and Schaeuble urged conservatives to back the deal that was reached in Brussels, a source said, with the chancellor stressing that Germany had left its mark on the agreement and it included strict reform conditions and supervision of how Greece runs its economy.

Anton Hofreiter, a leader of the opposition Greens, said he expected a majority of his party to abstain. "I won't vote 'no' because I think Greece definitely needs a bailout and we need to keep Greece in the eurozone," he said.

"But I, and a large majority of the fraction, do not have confidence in the German government to act in a way that will prevent a Grexit," he added. [Reuters]