From the Commission press room, President Jean-Claude Juncker turned directly to the Greek people today (29 June) in a dramatic message ahead of the 5 July referendum, calling on them to vote yes for Europe, irrespective of the question asked.
In front of a background formed by Greek and EU flags, Juncker took a risk by telling the Greeks how to vote. In the event of a positive vote, he promised them the perspective that the country would remain in the eurozone despite a journey into “unchartered waters” in which the country will enter tomorrow, when the current bailout expires.
He also delivered a message to the Greeks that the creditors’ efforts were not aimed at humiliating them by perpetuating austerity, as the Syriza-led government is claiming. Juncker made it clear that the sides were very close to an agreement when the news came that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had called the referendum. Having spent many hours negotiating with Tsipras, Juncker said he felt betrayed by this announcement, of which he had not been given advance notice.
Juncker highlighted his personal involvement in the negotiations “day and night”, which he had kept discreet until now, the amount of work done, which he described as “moving mountains”, and also his disappointment, not only as a politician, but as a person, of their failure.
The Commission President is known to be an ardent defender of keeping Greece in the eurozone, unlike some other politicians in the EU, who think that the eurozone would be better off without the profligate Greeks.
“After all the efforts I deployed, after all the Commission’s efforts, and also of the other participating institution, I feel a little betrayed. Because my personal efforts and those of the others, which were important, weren’t sufficiently taken into consideration,” he said.
Without mentioning the name of Tsipras, or of his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, Juncker deplored “the noises” that had overtaken the arguments and the accusations of “ultimatums”, of “take-it-or –leave-it” proposals and of accusations of blackmail.
“We don’t deserve this criticism. Neither me, nor Mr. Dijsselbloem from the Eurogroup, who went the extra mile to reach an agreement,” he said.
“Who acts this way? From where do the insults, the threats come from? Those unfinished sentences that grab the imagination of those who listen then from very far away?” he said, reiterating that the negotiations were shaken by the announcement of the referendum on early Saturday, and that the Greek government would campaign for a no vote.
“To play one democracy against the 18 others is not an attitude that goes well with the great people of Greece,” he said, adding that the Greeks going to the polls on Sunday should realise what is at stake.
“Countries before parties”
Juncker gave as an example the successful road to normalcy of other countries with financial difficulties, such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Cyprus and Latvia. Some countries paid a very high political price for their financial support of each other, he said, without mentioning Slovakia, the only country where a government fell in 2011 because of the contribution it needed to pay to the bailout fund from which Greece benefitted.
“This is what the order of priorities should be. Responsibility before individual biographies. Countries before parties,” he said, in an indirect attack on the ideological approache of the current Greek government.
“For me, the Greek exit from the eurozone has never been and will never be an option. But I always told my Greek friends that by saying that Grexit is not an option, they shouldn’t believe that at the very end of the process I would be able to present against all the others a final answer and a final solution,” Juncker said.
The Commission President repeated that his side’s main concern was to arrive at a fair and balanced deal, and that the institutions had adjusted their approach to the wishes of the Greek government.
“No talks happened in Athens. The Brussels group was created instead of the so-called Troika. […] I brought, together with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the talks (to) a more political level, as was the wish of the Greek authorities. This has not been left with anonymous technocrats,” he said.
On substance, Juncker said the Commission side was committed to finding agreement on socially fair measures that can support growth and the necessary fiscal consolidation, also taking into account the requests of the Greek government.
No wage cuts, no pension cuts
There are no wage cuts, no pension cuts in the package which the Commission published, Juncker said. And in what can be seen as a rebuke to Tsipras, he added:
“You should be aware that in many instances, we in the European Commission had been the ones insisting on socially fair measures. I would have expected the Greek government to push this agenda in line with its campaign manifesto.”
Commission officials explained that the proposed package indeed contained no cuts to existing pensions, but reforms concerning future retirees, focusing on early retirement and existing unfair retirement schemes.
Juncker said that the package rejected by the Greek government was not “a stupid austerity package”, but that it lowered fiscal targets and gave more time to the Greek government to achieve it. Compared to the previous deal, €12 billion less savings are requested from Greece in the coming years.
“Some member states have even higher fiscal targets despite having lower levels of debt”, he said, adding that “The Greek government was free to substitute measures it didn’t like with others,” as long as the numbers add up.
“We were asking for cuts in the defence budget and I think we were totally right to propose cuts in the defence budget,” Juncker said. Ironically, the leftist government has fought to preserve Greek defence spending, which is the highest in the EU.
Juncker also said he had spent hours with Tsipras for removing favourable tax treatments for ship owners.
“I had to do the job of the Greek government, to impose a less favourable tax treatment for ship owners, although this is common sense and is in line with tax justice,” he said.
Why is the price of energy and some commodities in Greece among the highest in Europe, Juncker asked, answering: “Because of the lack of competition and the refusal to tackle vested interest.”
An improved package?
Juncker hinted that the document published by his services is an improved version of what was on the table when the Greek negotiators walked out of the room on Friday night. At that time, the creditors were working at further openings, and the Commission was proposing to bring down hotel VAT to 13% from 23% in the previous proposal.
He also said that Tsipras was told that the Eurogroup and the European Stability Mechanism were ready to ensure the long-term financial stability of Greece already this autumn, and that the Commission would put together a €35-billion package for Greece under the European Fund for Stability and Investment (EFSI).
“Mr Tsipras knows that,” Juncker said, adding that he was not making new proposals, but describing what was on the table when the Greek side suddenly walked out of the talks and could have been easily adopted last Saturday.
“What do the Greek people know about our flexibility and determination, what do they know about the details of our common proposals, what do they know about this latest offer?”, he asked, rhetorically.
Juncker said it would be advisable for the Greek government to tell the truth to the Greek people, instead of simplifying its message to campaigning for a no vote in the referendum.
“I will ask the Greek people to vote yes. It is possible that the question will change during the next days,” Juncker said, without elaborating.
In fact, the Greek government today published the text of the question it plans to put to citizens in the referendum, asking them to decide whether or not to accept the demands made by international lenders in return for fresh cash to keep Greece from defaulting on its debts.
The question will reportedly read: “Should the proposal that was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup of 25 June 25, which consists of two parts that together constitute their comprehensive proposal, be accepted?” The “No” box appears as the first option, above the “Yes” box.
“I would ask the Greek people to vote yes, because from their vote, a signal would emerge, both for Greece and for the other Eurozone members. If the Greek people, responsible and conscious of their national and European role would vote yes, the message, as it would be received in the European Union and beyond, would mean that Greece wants to stay together with the other eurozone and European Union members,” Juncker said.
“I would like to say to the Greeks I love very deeply: Don’t commit suicide beecause you are afraid of death,” Juncker said.
Polls suggest a majority of Greek voters oppose further austerity measures but also want to stay in the euro, making the outcome of the vote hard to predict, as well as the consequences of a decision either way.