New German minister urges Greece to continue reforms
By Benjamin Fox
Greece must "complete the project it has started" if it is to end its era of economic crisis, Germany's foreign minister told reporters in Ahens, as he welcomed the reform efforts made by the cash-strapped country.
Speaking at a joint press conference on Thursday (9 January) with Greek counterpart Evangelos Venizelos, Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Greece to "use the remainder of the legislative period to take care of the work remaining," adding that he would "count on the economic successes of this work to appear" as a result.
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Steinmeier's two-day visit to Athens comes a day after Greece formally launched its six month presidency of the EU. The visit will conclude with talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Friday (10 January).
For his part, Venizelos said that Greece had "the largest obstacle behind us" and would record both economic growth and a primary budget surplus in 2014.
"Our goal is to overcome this crisis. When we reach this, Germany won't have to pay and German and European taxpayers won't be burdened," he said.
Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government now includes Social Democrats, such as Steinmeier, Berlin is not offering any changes to Greece's bailout. But Steinmeier's visit - the first under the Greek presidency - is rich in symbolism.
Greek ministers have put on a united front this week, insisting that the country does not need any further loans when its bailout programme finishes in 2014.
However, the government is hoping to secure improved terms to the interest rates on its loans to help plug a financing gap estimated at around €11 billion over the course of the year.
Although public anger has been muted as a result of an 18-hour ban on protests, aimed at ensuring a low-key start to its EU presidency, anti-German sentiment remains high in Greece.
Many Greeks see Berlin as the main driver of the country's severe austerity programme under its €240 billion bailout. Last month, the residence of the German ambassador in Athens was attacked by gunmen, although no one was hurt.
The left-wing Syriza party, which is the main opposition in Greece and which currently tops opinion polls, believes that much of Greece's debts should be written off just as Germany's were following the Second World War.
In an article published by the Athens Chamber of Commerce to coincide with the launch of the EU presidency, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras calls on the EU to set up a European Debt Conference to mutualise liability for sovereign debt.
The conference should follow "in the footsteps of the 1953 London Debt Conference, which relieved Germany of the economic burden of its own past, paved the way for the economic success of the country and helped rebuild the post-war German democracy," he said.