Jul 10, 2013

    EU extends aid carrot to Greece

    EURO-ZONE finance ministers meeting in Brussels decided on Monday to continue drip-feeding payments of emergency aid to Greece, pressuring Athens to keep its promises to restructure its economy.

    At the same time, as many as 5,000 Greeks, including hundreds of angry police officers on motorbikes, joined demonstrations here against the austerity plans of a government still wobbly after skirting collapse last month.

    Protesters were particularly incensed by renewed calls from international creditors to cut 15,000 civil-service jobs and to put thousands of public workers on reduced wages ahead of possible dismissal, in a country where unemployment already tops 27 per cent.

    The mayor of Athens was briefly hospitalised on Sunday night, after workers assaulted him as he left a meeting to discuss municipal layoffs. On Monday, the mayor of Greece's second-largest city, Salonika, threatened to quit rather than face deeper cuts.

    The protests have flared after a period of relative calm in Greece. They revived questions over the ability of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to carry out the cuts and changes being demanded - and about the future of his government.

    International creditors have already granted more than US$257 billion (S$329 billion) in financial assistance to the euro zone's crisis-hit countries.

    But the demands for further budget cuts and structural changes that have accompanied the aid are dividing the governments in Greece, Italy and Portugal badly.

    At the top of the agenda at the ministers' monthly gathering in Brussels was how much of the next batch of a promised US$10 billion in emergency aid they should release to Greece.

    Euro ministers had decided to make a disbursement of US$3.2 billion, with a further disbursement of US$650 million in October, on the condition that the country meets restructuring commitments by July 19.

    Athens has little choice but to comply. Mr Samaras was forced to reshuffle his government on June 24 after his junior coalition partner, Democratic Left, withdrew to protest against an earlier decision by the Prime Minister to shut down the state broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation.

    That step, a unilateral decree to eliminate some 2,600 jobs, set off a political firestorm in Greece and seems to have backfired.

    Employees have continued to occupy the broadcaster's huge headquarters, pumping out underground broadcasts of news and cultural programmes through surreptitious satellite feeds.

    The episode underscored just how difficult it is for any Greek government to cut the ranks of its bloated civil service.