ATHENS, June 14, 2010 (AFP)
Greek politicians were optimistic ahead of a visit Monday by experts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to check the government’s progress implementing its tough austerity plan.
Early signs suggested that the controversial measures, which have provoked violent street protests and a series of strikes, were bearing fruit.
According to official figures, the overall government deficit in the January-to-May period came to 8.973 billion euros (10.931 billion dollars) compared to 14.655 billion euros over the same period in 2009.
For Finance Minister Georges Papaconstantinou, these latest figures showed that the government’s economic recovery plan was not just on the right track but ahead of schedule.
For the figures represent a 38.8-percent reduction on the same period in 2009: better than the 35.1-percent cut forecast for the whole of 2010.
The socialist government, in power since October last year, has undertaken to make 30 billion euros’ worth of savings to cut its massive public deficit, nearly 14 percent of GDP in 2009, to less than three percent by 2014.
On that basis, the European Union and the IMF put together a 10-billion euro aid package, to be paid out over three years, but subject to strict checks on the country’s finances.
Greece, which has to get its deficit down to 8.1 percent of GDP by the end of this year, has already received a 20-billion-euro payment to help it avoid defaulting on its debts.
It is due to receive another two payments of nine billion euros, in September and December this year.
The efforts of the Athens administration have already been acknowledged abroad.
Handelsblatt, the respected German economic newspaper compared Greece’s efforts favourably with the Germany’s austerity plan, in an editorial last Wednesday.
“Europeans can now learn from Greece, rather than Germany, how to consolidate a budget,” the paper said.
Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank also praised the Greek austerity programme in a speech in Vienna Thursday.
“It is based on prudent macroeconomic assumptions… It has the potential to correct long-standing flaws, because it entails a very comprehensive structural reform package,” he said.
“We consider that the Greek programme has the appropriate features to succeed,” he added.
At the same conference, Greek Prime Minister Georges Papandreou declared: “Today is the first time when I can look to the future with optimism.
“We have taken difficult decisions, tough but necessary decisions. And we are now witnessing the first signs that we are turning the corner,” he added.
And in an interview with Austria’s Der Standard newspaper, he said the fight against corruption would allow them to make around 20 billion euros of savings — eight percent of GDP — thus further reducing the public deficit.
The socialists’ anti-corruption drive has included naming and shaming tax-avoiders from well-off doctors to show business personalities. They have even sidelined 20 senior tax office judged “inefficient”.
Nor has their own party been spared: PASOK suspended Akis Tsohatzopoulos, a former minister, pending an investigation of the fortune he has acquired through property dealings.
The government has also announced a privatisation plan that will affect the railways, the postal service, the ports, casinos and utilities such as water services.
This, they calculate, will bring another billion euros into the public coffers by 2013.
But the government still has to tackle the pensions issue, which both the EU and the IMF feel has to be confronted.
Plans to raise the retirement age and cut pensions have provoked a furious reaction from the unions, who have already taken their protests on to the streets.
They plan a further demonstration in Athens on Wednesday.