22nd May 2019

Van Rompuy to Greece: 'Don't blame Europe'

  • Van Rompuy to Greece: Don't blame us for what should have been done a long time ago (Photo: Council of the European Union)

As rebellion grows amongst MPs and ministers in Greece's ruling Pasok party, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on a visit to Athens has told the country it should not blame the European Union for its problems as the austerity and structural changes being imposed should have been done long ago.

"[The austerity measures] are unavoidable and should have been implemented long ago. Europe is not to be blamed. On the contrary, the Union is helping to preserve Greece's future," he said in remarks made following a meeting with Prime Minister George Papandreou.

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"I know that this message is not always well understood but it is the simple truth."

He also warned the Greek government that it needs to stick to its commitments to cuts and privatisation. In recent weeks, popular opposition to such measures has extended to the government, with MEPs and ministers openly criticising reforms.

"The key is to continue implementing the courageous reforms and privatisations that have been agreed in a timely and effective manner," he said. "On fiscal consolidation it is important to stick to the programme objectives."

In comments to the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, he also said that Belgium, his own country, had undergone similar structural adjustment in the late nineties, before the advent of the eurozone, and had successfully reduced its national debt.

"Some of your countrymen resist the reforms, others are anxious about the outcome. And we all understand these feelings. However, I want to share with you my confidence that it can be done," he continued.

"We in Belgium restored competitiveness by imposing wage restraint. We privatised telecoms and public banks. We asked special powers from the parliament."

However, he also said that he was "disdainful" of discussion of "peripheral countries" within the EU: "Each member state had to face economic problems in its recent history. Most of them made mistakes, whether they belonged to the north or the south, to the east or the west."

At the same time, he said other countries had undergone difficult reforms and that he understood the feelings of people who felt Greece was undisciplined. In core eurozone countries in the last year, populist newspapers such as Germany's Bild newspaper whipped up anti-Greek sentiment.

"People in all 27 countries in our Union ... feel it was bad enough to support their own banks and difficult enough to save jobs in their own country... One can thus understand a feeling that the same rules of discipline must apply to all EU countries."

Spokespeople for the president said he did not want to single out any particular actor within Greek society for criticisms of Europe or the austerity programme, but said that "criticism is coming from many quarters."

President Van Rompuy has in recent months regularly spoken out against euroscepticism.

He delivered his message ahead of a grueling few days for the the governing Pasok party, which is tearing itself apart over austerity and privatisation measures.

On Wednesday, the prime minister is to address the party's parliamentary group and try to put an end to the growing rebellion and on Friday, the cabinet is to put the finishing touches on its 2012-15 economic reform plan.

On Tuesday last week, finance minister George Papaconstaninou was sharply criticised by deputies from his own party for the scale of austerity imposed and multi-billion-euro support for domestic banks.

And at the end of March, a series of MPs came out in favour of an end to the memorandum of understanding signed with the EU-IMF-ECB troika.

'Our own problems'

But a government spokesman told EUobserver that the EU Council president was not criticising government ministers or MPs.

"He was addressing us the Greek people, the average Greek, not the government, that the average Greek should stand with us in solving the economic problems of Greece. These are not someone else's problems, they are our problems," Konstantinos Pappas, spokesman for the Greek mission to the EU, told this website.

"On that, we are are of the same opinion, completely in alignment with the president."

"There are also some political parties that strongly object to the whole idea of the programme [of austerity]," he continued.

"There are some ministers too with some objections," he conceded. "But the government's position is clear."

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