Merkel, Hollande in spotlight ahead of crucial Greek meetings
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will try to present a united front when they meet Thursday ahead of a fateful few weeks for Greece’s eurozone future.
As leaders of the bloc’s top two economies, the pair carry the weight of expectations that they will drive decisive action to remedy the near three-year crisis, despite their differences.
The timing of the evening summit in the German capital is no coincidence -- Merkel will host the Greek prime minister in Berlin less than 24 hours later before he meets Hollande in Paris Saturday.
Antonis Samaras will reportedly try to persuade his European partners to extend a deadline for swingeing spending cuts to keep Greece in the 17-nation eurozone after first meeting Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.
Germany, Europe’s effective paymaster, has insisted Athens must stick to the timeline and reforms agreed in return for its second rescue package, while France is seen as more flexible.
“The aim is to discuss flexibility in return for assurances and the two want to have a common line before the arrival of the Greek prime minister,” Claire Demesmay, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.
Ulrike Guerot, a political scientist at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said the meeting would be closely watched ahead of key decisions next month.
“The markets want to know if visions are the same in Berlin and Paris,” she said.
Greece, scrambling to find about 11.5 billion euros (US$14.2 billion) through drastic cuts and reforms in its fifth year of recession, is avidly awaiting a progress report by its international creditors, meanwhile.
The verdict, due in September, by the so-called Troika -- the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank -- will determine whether Athens gets the next slice of its bailout.
Without the funds -- worth some 31.5 billion euros -- Greece’s government is expected to quickly run out of cash and face a default that many analysts believe would force it to leave the eurozone.
Before this week’s diplomatic flurry, Athens said it only had 700 million of the 11.5 billion euros of cuts still to find, with a report it would argue for spreading them over four years, from 2013, instead of two.
Berlin has played down expectations of Merkel’s meetings with both Hollande and Samaras saying no “significant decisions” or “strong positions” were expected to emerge.
“The basis for all decisions in the case of Greece is the report of the troika,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said. Their discussions over dinner will also cover Syria, he said.
Paris sees the meeting as a chance to forge common ground on the Greek crisis, which continues to undermine the credibility of the euro, well-informed sources said.
But France also wants to hear from Samaras what progress Athens has made in terms of reforms demanded by the creditors.
Relations between Hollande, a socialist, and Merkel, a conservative Christian Democrat, got off to a rocky start with the chancellor’s insistence on austerity to fight the euro crisis at odds with the president’s emphasis on more growth.
But Demesmay said she believed Hollande would now be less on the offensive, having notched up a few successes, notably an EU accord on growth measures.
At home, both have returned from the summer break to face a challenging 12 months.
Elected on a mandate to boost jobs and growth, the French government has to find 33 billion euros’ worth of public spending savings amid flat growth and rising unemployment.
Merkel, for her part, is entering the countdown to elections, to be held by end-October 2013, with little public appetite to grant Greece yet more aid and a debate raging on the crisis that makes daily headlines.
Volker Kauder, parliamentary head of Merkel’s party, has warned Greece has ”no room for manoeuvre” on the timing or substance of its agreement but has also said that Europe should strive to keep Greece in the eurozone.
But in an interview with German daily Bild on Wednesday Samaras again called for more time to make spending cuts and reforms.
“All that we want is a little ’breathing space’ to revive the economy quickly and raise state income. More time does not automatically mean more money,” Samaras told Europe’s most widely-read paper.
“Let me be very clear. We are not asking for additional money. We are sticking by our commitments and are meeting all our requirements,” said Samaras.
“We need to get out of this negative psychology, which is like a black hole. Greeks have voted for a new government to put the country on a new course,” he insisted.
“We are making progress in structural reforms and privatisations. And it is not fair when some people in Europe want to keep pushing us back into this hole.”