By Jan Strupczewski and Ingrid Melander
The head of euro zone finance ministers urged Greece on Monday to “stop wasting time” and buckle down to serious talks on implementing a reform programme to secure urgently needed fresh funds from its international creditors.
Ministers spent barely 30 minutes discussing Greece at their monthly meeting, an EU official said, stressing it was time for Athens to engage in serious, detailed discussions with experts from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – formerly known as the “troika”.
EU and Greek officials said Greece, which had vowed to end cooperation with the “troika”, had agreed technical talks with “the three institutions” would begin in Brussels on Wednesday.
“Little has been done since the last Eurogroup (meeting two weeks ago) in terms of talks, in terms of implementation,” Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on arrival for the meeting of ministers of the 19-nation currency bloc.
“We have to stop wasting time and really start talks seriously,” he said, adding that euro zone partners stood ready to support Greece if it continued on the economic reform path.
Euro zone officials were not persuaded by a letter sent by Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis on Friday outlining seven planned measures. They said it was only a starting point without detailed figures and no basis for releasing any frozen bailout money yet.
Varoufakis irritated EU partners by dangling the prospect of a referendum in a weekend newspaper interview. He kept a low profile on Monday, avoiding reporters on arrival.
Dijsselbloem said the steps outlined in the letter were “far from complete”, adding that it would be very difficult to complete the reform programme during the four-month extension of Greece’s EU/IMF bailout that runs until end June. A Greek official said Athens was ready to add more measures, notably to combat tax evasion, if required.
Shut out of capital markets, with international loans frozen and tax revenues falling, Greece could run out of cash later this month. However, a Greek official said Athens had enough to pay the second of four 310 million-euro loan installments due to the IMF on March 13. Two more are due on March 16 and 20.
Varoufakis, who wants a negotiated restructuring of Greece’s debt to official lenders, was quoted by Italy’s Corriere della Sera on Sunday as saying the government could call a referendum or early elections if European partners rejected its debt and growth plans.
The finance ministry later clarified that the Marxist former academic had been replying to a hypothetical question and that any referendum would “obviously regard the content of reforms and fiscal policy” and not whether to stay in the euro.
An ECB source said the cash position of Greek banks, on a drip-feed of emergency lending, appeared to be stabilising after heavy deposit outflows from December to late February. The ECB will not let Greece increase its issuance of short-term treasury bills because monetary financing of the government is forbidden, the source said.
BETTER OFF OUT?
A senior politician in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc said Greece would be better off outside the 19-nation euro zone, suggesting that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble privately agreed.
“By leaving the euro zone, as Schaeuble has suggested, the country could make itself competitive again from a currency perspective with a new drachma,” former transport minister Peter Ramsauer, a member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), wrote in Bild.
Merkel and Schaeuble have both said publicly they want to keep Greece in the currency area. But in a sign that German views may be shifting, Ramsauer said a temporary “Grexit” would be a “great opportunity” for the country to boost its economy and administration, “making it fit to return to the euro area from a position of strength”.
Seeking European support for his government’s efforts to alleviate deep hardship caused by austerity, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday.
A Greek official said they would discuss how Greece can use EU funds to tackle what he called the humanitarian crisis.
Juncker has been trying to mediate between the new Athens government and its EU creditors, notably Germany, but his efforts have irritated Berlin, the euro zone’s main paymaster, which is keen to avoid sending mixed messages to Greece.
German Deputy Finance Minister Steffen Kampeter criticised Varoufakis’ talk of a referendum or early elections, saying it would only delay what needed to be done.
An opinion poll on Monday showed a large majority of Greeks want Athens to reach a compromise deal with lenders to avoid having to leave the euro.
Some 69.6 percent of Greeks say their new government should look for an “honourable compromise” to resolve the crisis, according to a Marc survey for the newspaper Efimerida Ton Syntakton. Only 27.4 percent of those questioned wanted Greece to refuse any compromise, even if that meant having to leave the euro zone.
Tsipras won power in January promising to scrap the bailout programme and end austerity but was forced to accept a four-month conditional extension to avert bankruptcy.