International

Greek offer of concessions rejected

A man adjusts a Greek (L) and a European flag outside the Greek embassy in Brussels February 19, 2015.REUTERS/Yves Herman

ATHENS/BRUSSELS: Greece formally requested a six-month extension to its eurozone loan agreement Thursday, offering major concessions as it raced to avoid running out of cash within weeks, but immediately ran into strong objections from EU paymaster Germany.

Berlin’s reaction was hostile, with the Finance Ministry describing the Greek proposal as “not a substantial solution” as it failed to fulfill conditions of an EU/IMF bailout program which leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had promised to ditch when he won an election last month.

With the program due to expire in little more than a week, Athens urgently needs to secure a financial lifeline to keep the country afloat beyond late March.

Eurozone finance ministers will meet Friday afternoon in Brussels to consider the request, the chairman of their Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said in a tweet. That raised hopes of a deal to avert possible bankruptcy and a Greek exit from the 19-nation currency area.

But such hopes soon began to fade when the German Finance Ministry poured cold water on the Greek request made in a letter to Dijsselbloem for an extension to its “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” with the eurozone.

Berlin has led skeptical eurozone governments in demanding that Greece keeps promises made by a previous conservative-led government to implement tough austerity policies and painful economic forms.

Finance Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger repeated German objections to Greek plans to seek a “bridge” deal covering funding while sidestepping austerity issues.

“The letter from Athens is not a proposal that leads to a substantial solution,” Jaeger said in a statement. “In truth it goes in the direction of a bridge financing, without fulfilling the demands of the program.”

The letter did not meet the criteria agreed by the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers Monday, he added.

In Athens, a government official said Greece was proposing different terms from its current bailout obligations. Greece had committed to maintain fiscal balance during the interim period, take immediate reforms to fight tax evasion and corruption, and measures to deal with what Athens calls its “humanitarian crisis” and kick-start economic growth, he said.

In the document seen by Reuters, Greece pledged to meet its financial obligations to all creditors, recognize the existing EU/IMF program as the legally binding framework and refrain from unilateral action that would undermine the fiscal targets.

Crucially, it accepted that the extension would be monitored by the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, a climb down by Tsipras who had vowed to end cooperation with “troika” inspectors accused of inflicting deep economic and social damage on Greece.

However, the document stopped short of accepting that Greece should achieve this year a surplus on the primary budget – which excludes repayments on Greece’s huge debts – equal to 3 percent of the country’s annual economic output, as promised under the bailout deal.

Tsipras wants to cut that to 1.5 percent to allow more state spending to ease the plight of the Greek people, while the document left the issue open by speaking of attaining “appropriate primary budget surpluses.”

The six-month interim period would be used to negotiate a long-term deal for recovery and growth incorporating further debt relief measures promised by the Eurogroup in 2012.

If Berlin’s reservations are shared among other eurozone governments, the letter’s wording may fail in its intention: to allow Athens to avoid saying it is extending the current program that it opposes while creditors can avoid accepting a “loan agreement” without strings attached.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had expressed confidence Wednesday.

“The application will be written in such a way so that it will satisfy both the Greek side and the president of the Eurogroup,” he said.

Crucial details remain to be clarified on the fiscal targets, labor market reforms, privatizations and other measures due to be implemented under the existing program.

Greek stocks initially rose on Thursday’s developments, with the benchmark Athens stock index up 2 percent but slipped back after the German statement, being up just 0.6 percent on the day. Banks gained 9 percent but then shed half the gains.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has poured scorn on suggestions that Athens could negotiate an extension of eurozone funding with no strings attached.

But on Wednesday he had indicated there may be some possibility of a compromise.

“Our room for manoeuver is limited,” he said during a debate in Berlin, adding, “We must keep in mind that we have a huge responsibility to keep Europe stable.”

Greece’s finances are in peril. It is burning through its cash reserves and could run out of money by the end of March without fresh funds, a person familiar with the figures said.

Likewise its banks are dependent on the emergency funding controlled by the ECB in order to pay out depositors who have been withdrawing their cash. The ECB agreed Wednesday to raise a cap on funding available under its Emergency Liquidity Assistance scheme to 68.3 billion euros ($78 billion), a person familiar with the ECB talks said.

That was a rise of just 3.3 billion euros, less than Greece had requested. The modest increase raises the pressure for a compromise at the Eurogroup. One senior banker said it would be enough to keep Greek banks afloat only for another week if present outflow trends persist.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 20, 2015, on page 5.

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