OPINION

Samaras at helm of Europe advised against push for better deal

Memo to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras: don’t press too hard in public during your European Union presidency for a better bailout deal, say veterans of the EU job.

Samaras has two goals for the first half of 2014 when crisis-scarred Greece takes the position that rotates among the 28 EU nations every six months: win debt relief and, by doing so, keep his shaky government in power.

The best way to do that is by playing the honest broker in EU policy making, not by asserting Greece’s national agenda, says Lucinda Creighton, who as Irish European affairs minister helped guide Ireland’s EU term in the first half of 2013.

“If you come in guns blazing, simply talking about national priorities, then you just won’t build a coalition of support,” Creighton said in a telephone interview from Dublin before the bloc’s chiefs gather for a summit in Brussels today. “The EU is a very delicate balancing act of diplomacy and subtlety.”

Ireland helped pull off an accord on the bloc’s seven-year budget during its EU stint. This week it became the first of five countries to be weaned off an aid package, in what EU leaders hailed as a crisis-management success story.

The counter-example is Cyprus, which had the post last year. President Demetris Christofias used his EU term to delay a reckoning over Cyprus’s debt and bad banks, leaving his successor to take the blame for this year’s bailout.

The nation holding the EU presidency hosts ministerial meetings and shepherds negotiations in areas from financial- services regulation to farm subsidies, truckers’ working hours to auto-pollution limits. Brokering a final deal on bank- resolution rules will top Greece’s agenda.

Resisting temptation

“There’s always a temptation to provide for your own policy,” Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius of Lithuania, which wraps up its term this week, said in an interview. “We didn’t expose our national interests, we tried to really be the honest brokers.”

In keeping with the EU’s money-saving dictates, Greece is planning what it calls a “Spartan” presidency, budgeting 50 million euros ($69 million) to host meetings and stage cultural happenings, on a par with Ireland’s 51 million euros. Official visitors traveled up and down the country and to Aegean Sea islands during Greece’s previous presidency, in 2003; this time, almost all meetings will be in Athens.

“We are going to try to do a non-expensive but efficient presidency,” Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas told reporters in Brussels yesterday. “We fully take account of the tight financial situation.”

Permanent appointees

The top job isn’t what it was when Greece last had it. Since then, euro-zone management and EU foreign policy have been farmed out to permanent appointees, and a full-timer — EU President Herman Van Rompuy — chairs leaders’ summits.

What’s left for Samaras and his cabinet ministers is to use the six months as a showcase, to demonstrate that after tapping 240 billion euros of emergency aid and pushing the common- currency zone to the brink of breakup, Greece has turned the economic corner.

On both counts, Greece has a long way to go. Unemployment is at 27.4 percent and after six years of contraction, the economy will eke out only 0.6 percent growth in 2014, the European Commission forecasts. It is an open question whether Greece will ever pay off all its debt, estimated at 176 percent of gross domestic product and owed mostly to European governments and the International Monetary Fund.

Politically, Samaras presides over a two-party coalition clinging to a four-seat parliamentary majority under constant attack from an opposition that rejects the budget cutting demanded by creditors.

Pressing Merkel

Samaras has sought to use that weakness as a strength, by pressing leaders like the newly reinaugurated German Chancellor Angela Merkel to ease up on austerity to keep his government intact and prevent radical, anti-euro forces from taking over.

Since coming to power in mid-2012, Samaras has wangled concessions from the EU on issues like the size and timing of public-sector job cuts. The latest in the virtually non-stop negotiations with the creditors led to the shrinking of Hellenic Defense Systems SA, a state-owned arms maker.

Samaras goes into his EU term with Greece posting an operating budget surplus, meeting a condition set in November 2012 for the granting of debt relief. However, the EU won’t certify Greece’s data until late April or early May, making it hard for Samaras to pocket that concession in time for the EU parliament vote.

SYRIZA risk

The chief danger for him is the SYRIZA party, which has become a rallying point for bailout discontents. Led by Alexis Tsipras, SYRIZA eyes EU parliament elections next May as a way of exposing Samaras’s unpopularity and forcing new national elections.

SYRIZA is ahead in the polls with 22 percent, compared to 20.8 percent for Samaras’s New Democracy party, according to a Dec. 16 MRB survey for Real.gr. In that sense, Greece is in the European mainstream: protest parties across the EU are counting on a boost in the EU balloting.

European Parliament politicking, the depressed economy and unrelenting pressure from creditors for painful economic reforms breed the potential for a “political accident,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and a regular visitor to Greece.

“It’s a politically volatile situation, so Samaras is using every opportunity to showcase that he’s the man who enjoys a certain degree of trust of his European counterparts and has access to the centers of power in Europe,” Emmanouilidis said. [Bloomberg]