20th Feb 2020

EU commissioners go off-message on Greece

  • Commissioners want to be political - but this can cause communication problems for their institution (Photo: European Parliament)

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has given reassurances his institution wants Greece to stay in the eurozone, after one of his commissioners suggested an exit is being considered and another downplayed the devastating effects of such a scenario.

"All of Europe has now its eyes on Athens. We are in a very decisive moment regarding the future of Greece and the future of the euro. We want Greece in the euro. The European Commission has made it clear from the very beginning that it is very important not only for Greece, but also for the euro, for the European project, to keep Greece in the euro," Barroso told press on Tuesday (7 February) as he was going into a meeting with one of his predecessors, Jacques Delors.

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Delors, one of the biggest promoters of EU integration, was in town to mark the 20-year anniversary of the Maastricht treaty, which paved the way for the introduction of the euro.

Barroso, who appealed for the "spirit of Maastricht" to "continue to reinforce Europe", underlined that keeping Greece in the eurozone would cost much less than allowing it to exit.

The Portuguese politician was in damage-control mode after several of his commissioners went off-message in interviews to newspapers in their home countries.

Dutch commissioner Neelie Kroes, in charge of digital agenda, in an interview with Volkskrant on Monday said the eurozone would survive if Greece were to exit. "It's always said that if you let one country get out, or ask it to get out, then the whole structure collapses. But that's simply not true," she said.

Kroes, who comes from the same Liberal party as the current Dutch Prime Minister also took a very Dutch line when it comes to the Greek bail-out: "The Greeks have to realise that we Dutch and we Germans can only sell emergency Greek aid to our taxpayers if there's evidence of good will."

The commissioners swear an oath to stay out of national politics and to protect EU interests when they take up office.

Last week, Greek commissioner Maria Damanaki, in charge of fisheries, also broke ranks when she told local newspaper To Vima tis Kyriakis that a Greek euro-exit is being "openly studied," without going into any details.

"What is promoted is Greece's internal devaluation within the eurozone. But there is preparation for other solutions, if Greece doesn't make it despite its efforts, to continue on the eurozone path," she said.

For his part, commission spokesman Olivier Bailly on Tuesday said the commission is united on Greece and tried to downplay the Kroes and Damianaki statements as being taken "out of context."

He noted that the people in charge of the Greek dossier are Barroso and the economic affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn. "Other statements by other commissioners are interesting, important, but we don't consider them to be in contradiction with the commission line," he said.

He added that commissioners are entitled to explain "major topics" outside their portfolio to their public back home, Bailly added, noting that the Netherlands is an important contributor to the Greek bail-out.

Meanwhile, the commission has toughened its official line on Greece in recent days, as deadline after deadline passed without Athens clinching political support for further spending cuts demanded by international lenders for the second bail-out, worth €130 billion.

Barroso himself on Tuesday called on Greek politicians to approve the deal, as they headed into another crunch meeting late in the afternoon: "I want to make this message clear urging the political leadership of the different political parties in Greece to work together for what I believe is a better future for that country, that we very much respect and that we want to keep in our Union and in the euro area."

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