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EU aides play down Greek reform plan, no early progress

By Toby Sterling and Jan Strupczewski

AMSTERDAM/BRUSSELS, March 9 (Reuters) – Euro zone officials played down plans submitted by cash-strapped Greece to its international creditors in a bid to secure fresh funds, a day after Athens’ outspoken finance minister irked EU partners by raising the prospect of a referendum.

Speaking before finance ministers of the currency area meet in Brussels on Monday, Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem said steps outlined by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in a letter last week were serious but “far from complete”.

“This is a process that’s just going to take a long time,” the Dutchman said, adding that it would be very difficult to complete Greece’s reform programme during the four-month extension of its EU/IMF bailout that runs until end June.

Varoufakis, who wants a negotiated restructuring of Greece’s debt to official lenders, said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday the leftist-led 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.

A senior politician in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc said on Monday that Greece would be better off outside the 19-nation euro zone, suggesting that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble privately shared that view.

“By leaving the euro zone, as Finance Minister 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 sentiment 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”.


German Deputy Finance Minister Steffen Kampeter said in a radio interview he did not expect substantial decisions on Greece at Monday’s Eurogroup meeting because ministers were waiting for more financial details on the reform plans.

He criticised Varoufakis’ talk of a referendum or returning to elections, saying it would only delay the implementation of the economic measures Greece needed.

An opinion poll published on Monday showed a large majority of Greeks want Athens to reach a compromise deal with international lenders to avoid having to leave the euro.

Some 69.6 percent of Greeks say the new leftist-led 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.

Leftist leader Alexis Tsipras won power in January promising voters a radical renegotiation of the bailout package that requires strict budget discipline and which has imposed wrenching austerity, shrinking the economy by about 25 percent.

Despite rifts in his Syriza party because of concessions the government has had to make, polls show it remains popular.

The government submitted a bill last week to offer free food and electricity to thousands of poverty-stricken Greeks as its first legislative act in parliament — a symbolic move to address what it calls a humanitarian crisis.

About 88 percent of respondents supported these initial policy steps, according to the survey.

Shut out of debt markets and with international loans frozen against a background of falling revenues, Greece could run out of cash later this month. (Additional reporting by Stephen Brown and Noah Barkin in Berlin, Steven Scherer in Rome and Angeliki Koutantou in Athens; Writing by Paul Taylor Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

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