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Vital Greek economy talks begin

After three days of delays Greek coalition leaders have begun crucial talks with the prime minister on steep cuts demanded in return for a vital financial bailout.

Leaders of three parties backing the three-month-old coalition are under intense pressure to accept the new austerity demands and shield the country from a looming bankruptcy.

Their decisions will be announced at a meeting with Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, after the parties were handed a 50-page English-language draft agreement, drawn up with international debt inspectors.

Athens has already accepted a demand to fire up to 15,000 workers in the public sector in 2012, but is under pressure to impose deeper cuts, including reductions in pension payments and the minimum wage.

A disorderly bankruptcy by Greece would probably lead to its exit from the eurozone, a situation that European officials have insisted is impossible because it would hurt other weak countries like Portugal, Ireland and Italy.

It was still not clear whether the parties - the majority Socialists, main rival conservatives, and small right-wing LAOS - would accept the austerity demands, particularly ahead of national elections provisionally set for late April. "Austerity measures are like shoes that are too tight. Sooner or later, you want to kick them off," LAOS leader George Karatzaferis said.

The coalition talks have been repeatedly postponed this week to make time for exhaustive negotiations with representatives of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, on whose approval the continued flow of Greece's vital rescue loans depends.

Without the bailout, Greece would not have enough money to pay off a big bond redemption payment due on March. 20, triggering a default that risks sending shockwaves throughout financial markets and the global economy.

As anger mounts in Greece at the prospect of further economic pain, patience is running out abroad. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said Greece must swiftly return to a sustainable, viable path.

The EU, ECB and IMF, known collectively as the "troika", have demanded the additional measures which they say will improve Greece's competitiveness and economic stability, as well as cuts in health, welfare and defence spending.

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