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5th Mar 2021

Greek opposition rejects EU pressure for cross-party consensus

Brussels may have acquired a taste for pressuring domestic political forces in EU member states to drop their traditional antagonisms for the sake of the eurozone, but that does not mean the parties like it.

On Tuesday in Greece - the latest country where the EU institutions have demanded that political opponents reach a cross-party consensus on economic policies - opposition conservative leader Antonis Samaras rejected the idea that his New Democracy party line up behind the governing social democrats of Pasok and support the latest round of austerity measures.

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  • Athens airport: One of the items in the government's privatisation package (Photo: khowaga1)

Following an hour-long meeting with Prime Minister George Papandreou in the morning - the first of five tete-a-tete encounters with party leaders the same day aiming to build a broad consensus for a package of rapid-fire privatisations and €6 billion in fresh spending cuts unveiled on Monday - Samaras denounced the government's plans.

"I am not going to consent to this recipe that has been proven wrong," he said, adding that past mistakes are being repeated. He also condemned new levies on pensioners and additional social security contributions from employers as a "tax raid".

He wants to see a renegotiation of the memorandum of understanding between Athens and the EU and IMF that delivered a €110 billion bail-out in return for draconian austerity measures.

Samaras said he did however back the privatisation plans of the government and that New Democracy would vote for the measures on condition that they are separated from the rest of the overall package of cuts and taxes.

The conservatives for their part are calling for a yet more intense ‘shock doctrine' approach.

"What is needed is a creative shock through the reduction of taxes. We say yes to privatisations but no to measures of fiscal panic," he continued.

The blunt rejection of the government's plans will come as a disappointment to the European Commission, which wants to see a broad consensus on the new measures amongst the political parties, but crucially between the governing Pasok and opposition New Democracy, the second largest party in the parliament.

While Pasok maintains a comfortable majority, a growing number of MPs in the centre-left party have voiced their discomfort at cuts that hit working people while leaving wealthier sections of society relatively unscathed. Even cabinet members have begun to publicly question the leadership style of the prime minister.

A robust supermajority in the chamber however would relegate such squabbles to the sidelines and, Brussels hopes, calm markets, who are not convinced that the government is capable of pushing through its adjustment plans.

On Monday, EU economy chief Olli Rehn said: "There does not have to be a detailed agreement but a political one relating to the political characteristics of the programme."

The same day, EU economics spokesman Amadeu Altafaj-Tardio went further in explaining why Brussels wanted to see national unity on the subject.

"It is very important for us that the political groups in Greece set their disagrements aside and clearly, unambiguously in public support the objectives and main economic policies for Greece," he told reporters. "I'm not talking about detailed agreement on every figure, but on the politcal nature of programme."

"That was possible in Ireland and Portugal so [Rehn] does not see why it is not possible in Greece," he continued.

"We have to ensure there is a stable approach to the whole programme."

On Tuesday afternoon, Papandreou moved on to talks with four other opposition parties, the ultra-liberal Democratic Alliance, the left-wing Democratic Alliance, the far-left Syriza and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (Laos), also seeking support for the new measures.

Syriza leader Alexis Tspiras described the cuts as "criminal' while the Communist Party chief, Aleka Papariga, refused to meet with the prime minister.

Laos leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, whose party backs the EU-IMF memorandum, however offered equivocal backing, offering a gnomic: "No to indefinite consensus, yes to joint responsibility."

No longer taboo

The call for a cross-party consensus in Greece is the fourth time this year that the EU has pressed domestic parties to put aside their differences for the sake of the greater good, an interference in national politics historically considered taboo for the European institutions, whose officials are not elected by citizens.

But the scale of the eurozone crisis has done away with many inhibitions in Brussels, and in April, Olli Rehn and ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet demanded that the major Portuguese political parties, currently engaged in a general election campaign, jointly back a €78 billion bail-out and its accompanying austerity and structural adjustment measures, a consensus that was subsequently reached, despite the opposition of the country's two hard-left parties.

In Finland meanwhile, EU leaders this month were keen to ensure that a cross-party agreement could be cobbled together to ensure the country's approval of the Portuguese rescue.

The eurosceptic True Finns, the third largest party and major winners of the May general election as a result of their campaign against the bail-out, did bow to heavy pressure to change their position, but ultimately the four parties in the outgoing government and the opposition Social Democrats announced they would support the package.

Irish opposition political parties that had campaigned for changes to their country's bail-out programme, to limit social service cutbacks and impose haircuts on senior bondholders were also told after they had won a snap general election in February that they had to abandon such pledges, which they duly did.

A Greek government official told EUobserver however that reports of the commission leaning on the prime minister to achieve a consensus were "editorialising" and that the effort to win over other parties was Papandreou's idea.

"If he didn't want to do this, he wouldn't do it," said the source.

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