Greek prime minister pleads for more time

GREECE needs more time to implement tough financial reforms and spending cuts, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras says as he starts the first of a series of top-level European meetings to discuss his debt-ridden country’s international bail-out.Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the Eurogroup, the body representing the finance ministers of the 17 countries that use the euro, travelled to Athens late yesterday for talks with Mr Samaras and his finance minister, Yannis Stournaras. The Greek premier then heads to Berlin later this week to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and on to Paris to see French President Francois Hollande.

Speaking to the German daily Bild, Mr Samaras said while Greece needed more time to restart its economy, this did not necessarily mean it needed more money.

Greece is dependent on two international rescue loan packages from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are preventing bankruptcy and Greece potentially having to leave the euro.

In return, it has had to impose strict austerity measures including cuts to salaries and pensions, and repeated tax hikes. But Athens has faltered in the speed and effectiveness with which it has implemented the reforms, fuelling impatience among its creditors, notably Germany, which is the single largest contributor to the bail-out.

Debt inspectors from the “troika” that oversee Greece’s bail-out programme — the European Union, European Central Bank and the IMF — are due in Athens next month to assess how well the country has stuck to the terms of the deal. At stake is a fresh ¤31.5bn bail-out instalment.

Mr Samaras’ fragile three-party coalition government, which assumed the country’s leadership in June after two inconclusive elections, has a delicate balancing act to pull off. Faced with widespread anger in Greece over harsh measures seen as unfair to ordinary people, it has pledged to seek to renegotiate some of the terms of the bail-out. But its creditors have little patience left, with many officials across Europe insisting Greece should not get any more leeway.

The prime minister insisted it was time, rather than money, that his country needed.

“Let me be very clear: we are not asking for extra money,” Mr Samaras was quoted as telling Bild. “We stand by our commitments and the implementation of all requirements. But we must encourage growth, because that reduces the financing gaps,” he said.

“All we want is a little ‘air to breathe’ to get the economy going and increase state income,” he added, without being specific. “More time does not automatically mean more money.”

Greece’s debt stands at more than ¤300bn, and its economy is struggling through a fifth year of recession with unemployment above 23%. It negotiated a write-down of its debt earlier this year which saw its creditors take a 75% cut in the value of their bonds and gave Greece a longer repayment time. Asked whether Greece needed a second debt write-down, Mr Samaras said: “That has never been discussed.”

Some German politicians have talked openly in recent weeks about Greece leaving the euro and the vice-chancellor, Economy Minister Philipp Roesler, has said the idea has “lost its horror”.

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