At democracy’s birthplace, Macron dreams of Europe 2.0

Standing at a Greek site where democracy was conceived, French President Emmanuel Macron called on members of the European Union to reboot the 60-year-old bloc with sweeping political reforms or risk a “slow disintegration.”

Macron, on a visit on Thursday to Athens, urged EU nations to carry out six-month national reviews on EU reforms before imposing them — signaling his distance with the German-backed approach based on fiscal discipline within the eurozone.

“It would be a mistake to abandon the European ideal,” Macron said. “We must rediscover the enthusiasm that the union was founded upon and change, not with technocrats and not with bureaucracy.”

Elected by a landslide in May, the 39-year-old Macron has vowed to back efforts for closer integration in the EU, which has been rattled by a financial crisis, migration issues, a populist backlash and Britain’s decision to leave.

His proposal found enthusiastic support in bailout-stricken Greece, which considers France a vital ally and counterweight to fiscally hawkish Germany in its efforts to ease the stringent terms of its international rescue loans.

Reinforcing his message, Macron urged the International Monetary Fund to step back from its role in European bailouts — breaking with a widely accepted policy adopted when Greece sought international help seven years ago.

“I don’t think it was the right method for the IMF to supervise European programs and intervene in the way it did,” he said. “Let’s work within Europe and not turn to outside agencies.”

The eurozone rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, should play the lead role in financial rescue within the euro currency zone, he said.

France, Europe’s No. 2 economy, had previously backed Germany’s insistence in involving the IMF to enforce austerity measures that came with bailout programs in Greece and other rescued economies including Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.

Athens has relied on international rescue loans since 2010, and in return has seen its economy put under strict supervision by its creditors. Successive governments have had to enforce radical fiscal and structural reforms, including pension cuts and repeated tax hikes, in order to qualify for the loans.

Thursday’s visit came hours after Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane on record, battered French, British and Dutch territories in the Caribbean.

“All of France is grief-stricken by the many victims yesterday from the hurricane,” Macron said. He promised to visit the region when the weather lets up and put climate change “at the heart” of policymaking.

His evening speech was given in front of the ancient Acropolis on Pnyx Hill, where popular assemblies were held in Athens 2,500 years ago and the idea of democracy was developed.

The French president delivered his opening remarks in Greek, delighting an audience that included most of the Greek Cabinet.

Elsewhere in the city, heated arguments broke out between police and stranded motorists as roads were closed across the capital for hours. More than 2,000 police officers were on duty for the visit.

A small group of left-wing demonstrators defied a 17-hour protest ban and forced their way through a cordon, briefly clashing with police.

[AP]

 

DEREK GATOPOULOS, ELENA BECATOROS, ekathimerini.com, 07.09.2017

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Obama visits the Acropolis ahead of set-piece speech

President Barack Obama started his final day in Greece with a tour of the Acropolis, the nation’s most famous ancient monument.

A picture posted by the US Embassy on Twitter showed Obama during a private tour on the ancient citadel by Dr Eleni Banou of the Greek Ministry of Culture.

The ancient site will remain closed to the public for the day to accommodate the president’s visit.

Obama will also deliver a speech to the Greek people as he winds up the first leg of his final foreign tour as president and heads from Greece to Germany.

The president is expected to touch on both the country’s efforts to emerge from its financial crisis, and on its role in dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed Greece’s borders on their way to more prosperous European countries.

Obama’s visit to Greece is the first official visit by a sitting US president since Bill Clinton. [Combined reports]

source: ekathimerini.com
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Remarks from Obama visit to Greece

On the eve of his last foreign trip as US head of state, President Barack Obama on Monday outlined the purpose of his visit to Greece and Germany, saying that this is part of an effort to help stabilize the global economy. In Greece Tuesday, in remarks with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the American president spoke also of issues that are important for Athens: the Greek economy and the need for debt relief, efforts to solve the Cyprus issue, the refugee crisis and NATO. Below are excerpts from President Obama’s remarks.

Purpose of the trip

Our work has also helped to stabilize the global economy… I’ll spend this week reinforcing America’s support for the approaches that we’ve taken to promote economic growth and global security on a range of issues.

I look forward to my first visit in Greece. And then, in Germany, I’ll visit with Chancellor Merkel, who’s probably been my closest international partner these past eight years. I’ll also signal our solidarity with our closest allies, and express our support for a strong, integrated and united Europe. It’s essential to our national security and it’s essential to global stability. And that’s why the Transatlantic Alliance and the NATO Alliance have endured for decades under Democratic and Republican administrations…

In my conversation with the president-elect, he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships. And so one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance. I think that’s one of the most important functions I can serve at this stage, during this trip, is to let them know that there is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship, and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe, they’re good for the United States, and they’re vital for the world.

(Press conference in Washington on November 14, 2016)

Greece and the US

I’ve always wanted to come to Greece and I’m delighted to be able to make this part of my last trip overseas as president of the United States.

I think we all know that the world owes an enormous debt to Greece and the Greek people. So many of our ideas of democracy, so much of our literature and philosophy and science can be traced back to roots right here in Athens.

I’m told there’s a saying from those ancient times, kalos kai agathos, when someone or something is good and beautiful on the outside, but is also good and noble on the inside in terms of character and in terms of purpose. And I think that’s a fine description of the friendship that exists between the Greek people and the American people.

Now, the ideas of ancient Greece helped inspire America’s founding fathers as they reached for democracy. Our revolutionary ideas helped inspire Greeks as they sought their own freedom. And Americans came here to help fight for Greek independence. At the dawn of the Cold War, when President Truman committed the United States to the defense of Greece, he said, “I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”

To this day, the United States is profoundly grateful for our friendship and alliance with Greece. And I’m personally very grateful to my many friends in the Greek-American community, sons and daughters of Ellines who have found success in every walk of American life.

(In remarks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras)

Support for Greece

Obviously, Greece has gone through very challenging economic times over the last several years. And it has been the policy of my administration to do everything we can to work with the Greek government and the Greek people to restore growth and optimism and to alleviate hardship. And we are glad to see that progress is being made, although we recognize that there are significant challenges ahead, and we intend to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Greek people throughout this process.

And finally, whether it’s dealing with terrorism, addressing some of the challenges that are occurring in the Middle East, hosting our naval vessels, cooperation in the Aegean Sea, the strong NATO relationship between the United States in Greece is of the utmost importance. And I want to reaffirm not only our appreciation for the Greek people in that alliance, but underscore how important we consider the Transatlantic Alliance.

Support for Europe

We believe that a strong, prosperous and unified Europe is not only good for the people of Europe, but good for the world and good for the United States.

And we also believe that it’s important that all people have opportunity and inclusion in growth inside of Europe. And part of my message as I travel not just to Greece but to meet with other European leaders is to encourage a process that ensures opportunity for all, particularly for the youth of Europe and youth here in Greece.

The refugee crisis

I also want to extend the world’s appreciation for the humanitarian and compassionate manner that Greece has dealt with the severe migration and refugee crisis that’s been taking place.

As I said at the UN Summit on Refugees that I hosted in September, it’s important that we don’t have any single country bear the entire burden of these challenges – that all of us are contributing and participating in alleviating suffering and dealing with migration in an orderly and compassionate way. And we have been very glad to partner with the Greek government in managing this situation appropriately.

The need for debt relief

Our argument has always been that when the economy contracted this fast, when unemployment is this high, that there also has to be a growth agenda to go with it. And it is very difficult to imagine the kind of growth strategy that’s needed without some debt relief mechanism. Now, the politics of this are difficult in Europe. And I think in fairness to some of the governments up north that I know are not always popular here in Greece, it’s important to recognize that, you know, they have their own policies and their populations and their institutions often are resistant to some of these debt relief formulas.

But I think that having seen Greece begin many of these difficult steps toward structural reform, having shown a commitment to change, with the Greek people having endured some significant hardships for many years now, there should be an opportunity I think for both sides to recognize that if we can come up with a durable solution as opposed to each year or every six months having a new negotiation, that that could potentially be good for everyone.

And now that the Greek economy is growing again, the timing may be right.

We spent much of our time discussing the economic situation here in Greece and how Greece can continue to move forward. I know this has been a painful and difficult time, especially for Greek workers and families, pensioners and young people.

This crisis is not an obstruction, but has had a very concrete and devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across this country…

I’ve been clear from the beginning of this crisis that in order to make reforms sustainable, the Greek economy needs the space to return to growth and start creating jobs again. We cannot simply look to austerity as a strategy and it is incredibly important that the Greek people see improvements in their daily lives so that they can carry with them the hope that their lives will get better.

And in this context, as Greece continues reform, the IMF has said that debt relief is crucial. I will continue to urge creditors to take the steps needed to put Greece on a path toward a durable economic recovery because it’s in all of our interests that Greece succeeds. We all want the Greek people to prosper, to be able to provide a good life for their families and their children. That would be good for Greece, that would be good for the European Union, good for the United States, and ultimately, good for the world.

Cyprus

We discussed Cyprus, where the prospects for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement are the best that they’ve been for some time. It doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed, but the possibility of resolving a decades-long conflict is there and we urge the parties to continue their work. The interests of all Cypriots would be advanced with a bizonal bicommunal federation.

We’re hopeful that a solution that’s durable, which would create new economic opportunities for all the people across Cyprus, is within reach. And it would be a powerful example to the world of what’s possible with diplomacy and compromise.

This is ultimately a negotiation between Cypriots – Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. And the good news is that you have two leaders who seem genuinely committed to finding compromises and an approach that would serve both their peoples well. If, in fact, you can see a meeting of the minds between them, then the issue will be can we make sure that all of us – the international community, Turkey, Greece, the United States – support that agreement in a way that can be ratified by both sides.

And we’ve invested a lot of time, Vice President Biden’s been actively involved in this. We are encouraged by the progress that’s been made. I think there’s a window in the next few weeks, months, where this issue [will actually be] resolved and I think if we can find an equitable solution, it won’t provide 100 percent of what either side wants. There may be some mechanisms for a transition from status quo to the future that both sides envision, but I think it’s achievable and we’re going to do everything we can to support the process.

(Reply to a question in press conference with PM Tsipras)

NATO

Beyond economic issues, we discussed the pressing security challenges that we face as NATO allies. I want to take this opportunity to commend Greece for being one of the five NATO allies that spends 2 percent of GDP on defense, a goal that we have consistently set but not everybody has met. Greece has done this even during difficult economic times. If Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our allies should be able to do so.

(Remarks with PM Tsipras)

source: ekathimerini.com, 15/11/2016

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Greeks strike against leftist government’s pension plans

A one-day strike brought Greece to a standstill on Thursday, as trade unions protested against the left-led government’s plans for pension reforms that could help appease foreign creditors, but risks pushing thousands of people further into poverty.

Domestic flights were grounded, ferries stay docked in ports and most public transportation was paralyzed as part of the strike organised by Greece’s main labour unions, GSEE and ADEDY.

Thursday’s action is the second nationwide walkout since leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came to power in January 2015 on a pledge to end years of austerity, only to cave in and sign up to new reforms under a bailout package worth up to 86 billion euros, or face expulsion from the eurozone.

Thousands of workers, self-employed professionals, farmers and pensioners were expected to rally in central Athens around midday.

They will later march to parliament, in what is expected to be a test of the government’s resolve as it struggles to convince lenders it is committed to the terms of its third bailout while clinging on to a thin majority in parliament.

The nationwide strike coincides with a key bailout review.

The heads of the European Union and International Monetary Fund mission assessing Greece’s progress arrived in Athens this week to discuss the pension plan, tax reforms and bad loans weighing on banks.

The government wants to conclude the review swiftly to start talks on debt relief and convince Greeks that their sacrifices are paying off.

Greece must cut pension spending by 1 percent of GDP or 1.8 billion euros this year. To protect pensioners who have seen their pensions slashed 11 times since 2010, Athens plans to increase social security contributions.

But unions say the new plan hurts employment in a country where the jobless rate is 25 percent and forces workers, mainly self-employed, to tax evasion as it links social security contributions to income.

“We cannot live, we cannot survive with what the government is asking from us,” said farmer Socratis Aleiftiras, among thousands of farmers who have blocked roads across the country for the past two weeks.

Under terms of pension reform, their social security contributions will increase almost threefold in coming years.

Although the measures, which include the gradual phasing out of a pension benefit by 2019, are broadly in line with bailout demands, sources close to the lenders said they may not be enough to address a deeper-than-expected fiscal gap.

[Reuters]

source: ekathimerini.com, by Renee Maltezou

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Greece’s year of tumult enters new chapter as Tsipras dominates

Greek voters had the choice to reject the man who led their country closer than ever to being forced out of Europe’s single currency. Instead, they embraced him.

Alexis Tsipras and his Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, emerged from a second election in eight months with a level of support barely diminished from the emphatic victory that catapulted him both into power and a standoff with the euro region. SYRIZA, which took 35.5 percent of the vote compared with 28.1 percent for the center-right New Democracy, will enter a coalition with the same small party that helped it rule before.

While the victory tightens Tsipras’s hold over Greek politics, it also exposes the paradoxes of a country whose economy is a shadow of its former self and where controls remain on bank withdrawals. After coming to power pledging to end austerity and restore “dignity,” Tsipras now must implement the further sharp spending cuts and tax increases he ended up agreeing to in exchange for 86 billion euros ($97 billion) of fresh European aid.

The electorate has voted to return to power a party that “ditched its promises, switched its policies, and caused the collapse of Greek banks, bringing in an unneeded recession,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale University. On the other hand, “this government will be called to implement a stringent set of fiscal and structural reforms that it vigorously rejected before,” he said.

Hot summer

Greeks this summer faced some of the most harrowing moments of their six-year financial crisis as Tsipras, a former Communist Party activist, entered a game of chicken with other European leaders over their criteria for granting the new bailout, the country’s third since 2010.

Banks were closed, commerce ground to a halt, and European officials began to talk openly of Greece exiting the euro. The crisis was only resolved when Tsipras caved in to creditor demands, agreeing to a package of requirements arguably even more onerous than the one Greek voters rejected in a referendum less than two weeks earlier.

As a result of that deal, Tsipras’s power over matters of taxation, spending, and regulation will be minimal in his second stint at Maximos, the official Athens residence of the Greek prime minister. Virtually all key economic decisions have effectively been made by European finance ministers and central bankers, and any deviation risks a halt to aid payments.

“The space for brinkmanship or renegotiating the agreement is close to zero,” said Brunello Rosa, an analyst at Roubini Global Economics. An initial review by creditors of the country’s progress in implementing the program is due before the end of the year, with another in spring 2016.

Lower turnout

Beyond voter apathy, Tsipras paid almost no political price for his about-face on austerity. Turnout on Sunday at 56 percent was the lowest since at least the 1990s, and the election failed to engender the same flag-waving and car horn-honking as the other votes this year. A small crowd watched an outdoor TV screen in the central Syntagma Square in Athens on Sunday night, normally the scene of raucous celebrations.

Zoe Makrigianni, a 20-year-old student in Athens, showed up with other SYRIZA supporters to celebrate the win at a smaller square nearby.

“I expected a victory, but not by such a big margin,” Makrigianni said as she hugged friends. “We have a rescue program and we have to implement it. The question was who would do it most fairly.”

SYRIZA’s share of the ballots was about one percentage point less than what it received in January. Popular Unity, a splinter group of left-wing Syriza lawmakers who abandoned the party over the bailout deal, fell short of the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament. Those defections in August cost SYRIZA its governing majority, forcing the election.

Markets man

At the same time, the departures helped turn Tsipras into a more palatable figure for financial markets. Greek government bonds posted the biggest returns in the euro area over the past month and the country’s stock market has also rallied.

While SYRIZA’s electoral performance was better than pollsters expected, the party still fell just short of a majority of seats in the 300-member parliament. It plans to enter another coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks party, which received 3.7 percent of the vote and 10 seats.

With an expected majority of just five seats in parliament, down from a dozen, the Syriza coalition will have little room for error.

Doing deals

If Tsipras can finally also win over European leaders and the International Monetary Fund, he may be able to strengthen the country’s financial position. SyYRIZA has long called for a writedown of Greece’s 300 billion euros of government debt, while creditors have held out the prospect only of easier repayment terms.

Such progress would go over well with hard-up Greeks, whose economy has shrunk by a quarter since 2009.

The country’s voters have shown “they want the Tsipras that makes deals with creditors,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London. “They still trust Tsipras, after everything.”

[Bloomberg]

NIKOS CHRYSOLORAS, MATTHEW CAMPBELL & JONATHAN STEARNS/ ekathimerini.com

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