Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Terror overshadows Greece at Eurogroup meeting

  • French, Finnish and Greek finance ministers Sapin (l), Stubb (c) and Tsakalotos (r). (Photo: Consillium)

Monday's (23 November) Eurogroup meeting illustrated the shift of the EU's priorities from the Greek financial crisis to refugees and terrorism.

After many weeks of negotiations, Greece received €2 billion. But minds were elsewhere.

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The eurozone finance ministers meeting took place despite Brussels remaining on maximum alert.

"I'm happy that we could meet today," Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem said at the press conference that followed the meeting. "That's a good signal and I would like to express my strong appreciation to the Belgian authorities for keeping us safe today."

The European Council building was on Orange alert, one stage higher than the EU Commission building across the road, which is on Yellow alert.

Council and commission sources told EUobserver that the risk assessment is made by the Belgian authorities and that the alert level in the institutions refers to security measures taken.

"Those entering the commission building are mainly commission staff, whereas the council is more open to external visitors," a source said to explain the difference.

Just after Belgium extended the alert until Wednesday at least, European Council president Donald Tusk called a EU-Turkey summit for Sunday.

Whether the summit will actually take place will depend on whether Belgian authorities can assure security for the 29 head of state and governments plus the EU institution leaders, a source told EUobserver.

'Security comes first'

Terrorism was also discussed by the ministers. France asked that the 2013 directive on money laundering be implemented before 2017, the original deadline.

"This is too far off," French minister Michel Sapin told reporters. "We need to go faster in every country."

Sapin also informed the Eurogroup that in 2016 his country would spend €600 million more than planned on internal security, border controls and justice, and that the EU should take this effort into account.

But he assured that this new spending - 0.03 percent of France's GDP - would "not alter France's budget trajectory for 2016-2017".

Given the circumstances, Sapin's words met understanding ears.

"Security comes first," Dijsselbloem said, adding he was sure that France "should manage to fit [this spending] into the budget and not go off the rails".

Depending on how the current threat evolves, Belgium may also ask for some budget flexibility.

Flexibility was also discussed for countries faced with unexpected costs of addressing the migrant crisis.

"The commission said again that this will be examined on a case-by-case basis," finance commissioner Pierre Moscovici said at the press conference.

The main claimant for the refugee clause is Italy, one of the two EU countries required to set up hotspots to register migrants.

Austria's finance minister Hans-Jörg Schelling told Austrian public radio that the commission will allow his country to have the costs it made to mitigate the refugee crisis excluded from the calculation on its deficit target.

The commission "will take its time, until spring, to decide whether and how and in what proportions this clause can benefit Italy," Moscovici said.

Speed up on Greece

Terrorism also overshadowed what was once the most dramatic issue discussed by the Eurogroup.

The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) decided to unblock a €2-billion tranche of Greece's third bailout plan, after Greece completed the so-called first set of milestones last week.

The set of reforms contained in particular measures to facilitate foreclosures of debtors' houses and offset ditched VAT plans.

A €10-billion fund will soon be made available to recapitalise the main Greek banks once they complete financing through the private sector.

Two banks, the National Bank of Greece and Piraeus, are expected to receive a total of €6 billion in the next two weeks, a EU source said.

Greek finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos told his colleagues that his government would complete a second set of milestones by mid-December in order to unblock a remaining €1-billion tranche.

This second set will include measures on the governance of the banking system and design of the future privatisation fund.

The first review of the bailout programme, originally planned for October, should start early next year and will include the perilous issue of pension reforms.

"We need to go as fast as possible," Dijsselbloem said.

"The bad side is that we lost time. The good side is that the procedure with the banks is going better than expected."

The Eurogroup also approved the commission's assessment of the draft budget of eurozone countries for 2016.

Five countries were declared compliant with EU budget rules, seven broadly compliant and four at risk of non-compliance: Austria, Italy, Lithuania and Spain.

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