Greece hoping for peaceful launch of EU presidency
By Benjamin Fox
The European Commission's top brass is set for a muted reception on Wednesday (8 January) as the EU executive gathers in Athens for the launch of Greece's six month presidency of the EU.
After more than four years of near constant crisis, recession, and a tough austerity programme enforced as part of a €240 billion bailout, public support for the EU is low.
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A Gallup poll published Wednesday showed that approval for EU leadership among Greek citizens is at 13 percent, down from 32 percent in 2010.
Wary of the prospect of public protests, Greek authorities have imposed an 18 hour ban on protests in the centre of Athens on Wednesday in a bid to ensure that the launch passes peacefully.
On Wednesday morning the national parliament and government buildings were surrounded by baton wielding riot police.
The presidency comes with Greece potentially at a turning point.
The country that still best symbolises the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis expects to see a return to economic growth in 2014 after six years of recession that has wiped out more than 25 percent of the country's economic output.
Greece is now running a healthy current account surplus. Meanwhile, it is getting closer to being able to return to finance itself on the markets. Interest rates on ten-year Greek bonds now stand at 8 percent compared with 13 percent this time last year.
Prime minister Antonis Samaras says that Greece will continue its 'comeback' in 2014. The unemployment rate - currently the highest in the EU at 27 percent - will start to fall this year, he said.
But its recovery, both economic and political, is still perilously fragile. Greece's debt level stands at around 180 percent of GDP and most analysts believe that Athens will need either an extra loan or a debt write-off worth around €10 billion at some point over the next six months.
According to finance minister Yannis Stournaras, the annual income of the average Greek worker has fallen by 35 percent.
The governing coalition of centre-right and centre-left parties also holds a slim parliamentary majority and the awareness that public tolerance of further austerity measures is close to breaking point.
Opinion polls put the leftist Syriza party fractionally ahead of the centre-right New Democracy with 22.5 percent and 20 percent respectively, while support for the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn party stands at 11 percent, leaving them in third place.
Meanwhile, the once dominant socialist Pasok party is struggling on 5 percent, less than three years after it held a parliamentary majority.
Syriza promises that it would tear up the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the Greek government and its creditors and put in place a new 'National Programme' marked by public works and higher taxes on the wealthy.
Aside from making further progress as its bailout package enters its second phase, completing the single resolution mechanism for banks will be the main legislative priority for the Greek presidency.
Ministers agreed their position on new rules to wind up failing banks in the final week before Christmas, but negotiations with the European Parliament will start this week.