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8th May 2021

Parliament chief in Greece on rare EU visit

European Parliament chief Martin Schulz will address the Greek parliament on Tuesday (28 February) evening as the first senior EU politician to visit the debt-stricken country for almost a year.

Schulz is the first EU leader to go to Athens since last April, a period in which Greeks have seen their wages and pensions slashed and unemployment shoot up as the country implements a series of austerity measures in return for EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid.

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"I want to express our solidarity with the Greek people who are living through very hard times. Aid to Greece is in Greece's interest and the wider European interest," said Schulz ahead of the visit.

His trip comes as both sides are becoming increasingly exasperated with one another. Eurozone politicians point to a series of failed reform promises on the part of Greek politicians, while in Athens there is frustration that the changes already made are not sufficiently appreciated. A second bail-out for the country was only agreed after months of wrangling.

Although Schulz is visiting as the head of the EU assembly, his nationality is unlikely to go unremarked.

His native Germany has seen some of the strongest debate on the merits of bailing out Greece. A poll published over the weekend by the tabloid Bild showed that most Germans do not want Athens to get the second €130 billion rescue package even though it got the go-ahead from German MPs on Monday.

Meanwhile, many commentators have started to question whether the harsh measures - which have regularly driven Greeks to the streets to protest - will lead to the growth that EU and IMF officials predict.

Much of the anger is directed towards the troika - containing officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF - which oversees and assesses the implementation of the programme.

"Many of the Greeks with whom I spoke ... expressed a visceral bitterness towards the troika," said Megan Greene, an economist at Roubini Global Economics, a New-York-based research institute, in an analysis piece following a recent trip to Athens.

"Troika representatives have clearly noted the antagonism with which they are met in Athens, as they have quadrupled the number of bodyguards in their entourages over the past year."

While legions of officials and bureaucrats have been in and out of Greece, EU politicians have been thin on the ground.

EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy went to Greece in April last year - when talk of a second bail-out had not even officially begun. The previous parliament president was there in June 2010 and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was last there in June 2009.

"I think the president [Barroso] wants to go to Greece at the appropriate moment," said a commission spokesperson, pointing out that it is Greek leadership with whom he has been "most in touch with over the last two or so years."

For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel - whose government's views are reflected in much of austerity targets set for Greece - has not visited Athens at all since the scale of the Greek problem became apparent in 2009.

"I think it has been negative that Angela Merkel did not go to Athens since the outbreak of the crisis. I think in these kind of situations you need to show face," said Janis Emmanouilidis, an economist from the Brussels-based think tank, the European Policy Centre.

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