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Greece at the helm

Bernd Riegert / ccJanuary 1, 2014

For the next six months, Greece holds the presidency of the European Union. The country is virtually bankrupt, and has been bailed out several times by the EU. Now it's in charge of the EU's daily agenda.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Greece is still in serious economic crisis. Unemployment is at a record high of 27 percent. Taxes are rising, and public spending is down. The country is hundreds of billions of euros in debt. Konstantinos Karagkounis, a member of the Greek parliament, describes the situation as a "humanitarian catastrophe," and the situation is improving only very slowly.

Karagkounis, from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' conservative party, said on a visit to Brussels that, although economic indicators were improving slightly, the situation for ordinary Greeks was an absolute disaster. "We have to deal with a very difficult situation," he said. "The Greek presidency will have to deal with huge problems and great challenges."

On 1 January 2014 the recipient of Europe's biggest bailout took over the EU presidency, following an order of rotation that was set down years ago. The Greek government will have to lead hundreds of meetings, conduct complex negotiations, and host 13 ministerial councils in Athens.

Troika always on hand

Many Greeks regard the budgetary control by the so-called Troika - the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund - as a kind of foreign occupation. In budgetary proceedings the Troika granted the Greek government 50 million euros for the EU presidency. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German Member of the European Parliament from the business-orientated party the FDP, points out that this is not as much as it sounds.

Man sitting on the street, head bowed behind a handmade sign reading, in Greek, "I'm hungry"
Down and out in the Greek capital: The sign reads "I'm hungry"Image: picture alliance/Robert Geiss

"The Greeks will have to manage with a budget for the next six months that's about 40 percent lower than that of the previous presidency," Chatzimarkakis told DW. He commented that they would need to make savings on the management side, and cut the number of events. "But the Greeks are used to making savings now," said Chatzimarkakis. "I think that, for that reason, they will also be able to set a benchmark for future presidencies on how to work effectively on less taxpayer money."

Greece's Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dimitris Kourkoulas, announced that he planned to make do with an even less than he had been allocated. "Mineral water instead of champagne, like in Sparta," commented an employee at Greece's representation to the EU.

Priorities: Growth, migration and European elections

Greece's presidency will really last only three-and-a-half months, according to the calculations of its deputy EU representative, Andreas Papastavros. He reminded journalists in Brussels that elections for a new European parliament are due to be held at the end of May, meaning that all discussion of legal proposals must be concluded by the beginning of April.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in front of a purple banner reading "2014 EU"
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promises his country will live up to expectationsImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Greece plans to focus on passing the proposals for a banking union and amending the data protection act, as well as on refugee policy and the policy of particular importance to its own interests - growth. A major summit with African heads of state and government is also scheduled to take place during the Greek presidency.

The upcoming European elections, as well as the election campaign, will prove decisive for the Greek presidency, says Papastavros. "Europe is at a crossroads," he announced in Brussels. He warned that Europeans had started to lose faith in Europe's core values such as democratic governance, economic and social cohesion and solidarity. "Euroskepticism has spread across the European capitals," he warned. "So Greece cannot limit itself to only carrying out the tasks of the presidency: Greece, as the country holding the presidency of the council needs to make a meaningful contribution to the public debate regarding Europe's future."

The current Greek government, which has only a small parliamentary majority in Athens, is afraid that the European elections could turn into a protest vote against the strict austerity program and Greece's dependence on the Troika. The leftist opposition leader Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party wants to make the leap from Athens into the European parliament: He is even running for the position of head of the European Commission.

Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras
Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras wants to head the European CommissionImage: DW/B. Riegert

'Presidency of hope'

Since last summer, the Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras has been insisting that Greece is on the road to recovery. After deducting all the costs of borrowing, the national budget is indeed just about in the black: Revenues are slightly higher than expenditure, the result of raising taxes and setting up a proper tax authority.

At the last EU summit, Samaras proudly declared that his country had done what the Troika asked of it. "Greece starts the EU presidency on a positive record, with a primary surplus and an imminent recovery," he said. "This is going to be a presidency of hope - hope for more Europe, and hope for a better Europe."

However, the Troika pointed out that the reforms required under the terms of the loan were not all implemented on time. Consequently, the next tranche of financial aid has not been paid out: So one of the first things the new presidency of the European Commission will have to do is renegotiate with the Troika about itself. Greece will also have to reach an agreement with the rest of the eurozone on how its debts are to be financed beyond 2014, when the current aid program comes to an end.

Then, in July, another economically weak country takes over the rotating presidency: Italy. Italy is not relying on money from the bailout fund, but it too is suffering from a recession and is heavily in debt. The Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already announced that he intends to continue Greece's focus on refugee policy: Greece and Italy see themselves as bearing the brunt of immigration to Europe from Africa and Asia.