Eurozone puts Greek debt relief on hold in Christmas bonus row

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras looks on during a parliamentary session before a budget. Athens, 10 December. [Reuters]

Lenders put a short-term debt relief deal for Greece on hold yesterday (14 December) after the Athens government proposed a one-off payout to pensioners, the eurozone bailout fund ESM said.

Eurozone finance ministers agreed on 5 December to grant Greece short-term debt relief that would reduce its public debt by 20 percentage points of GDP by 2060.

Eurozone agrees short-term debt relief for Greece amid IMF row

Eurozone finance ministers on Monday approved new debt relief measures to alleviate Greece’s colossal debt mountain in the wake of its huge €86 billion bailout, but at levels far short of those demanded by the IMF.

But three days later, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said his government would spend €617 million in one-off benefits for low-income pensioners ahead of Christmas because Greece had exceeded its 2016 primary surplus target.

The Greek government has also annoyed its lenders by deciding to continue a 30% discount on levels of value-added tax charged on some Greek islands.

“Following recent proposals by the Greek government to spend additional fiscal resources for pensions and VAT our governing bodies have put their decisions temporarily on hold,” a spokesman for the ESM said.

“Institutions are currently assessing the impact of Greek government decisions vis-a-vis the ESM programme commitments and targets. (We) will then analyse the institutions’ assessment and subsequently decide how to proceed,” the ESM spokesman noted.

Greek government borrowing costs rose to one-month highs on the news.

In a defiant response to the lenders’ move, Athens said it would hold a parliamentary vote on the pension payments on Thursday (15 December) in an effort to rally domestic support.

Greek pensioners, who have seen repeated cuts in their pensions during seven years of recession as part of a bailout-mandated austerity drive, have already snubbed the bonus plan as a “ruse” and plan rallies in Athens on Thursday.

The ESM had already criticised the payout proposal on Monday (12 December), but Tsipras was defiant in a speech the following day.

“When we exceed targets and revenue by sticking to the programme, we will not seek anyone’s permission to give this money to those who need it most,” he said.

Christmas spirit lacking in Greek bailout wrangles

Greece thanked creditors for modest debt relief on St Nicholas Day in Brussels but did not hide disappointment it won’t get the Christmas gift it wants – a pass on the latest phase of its bailout programme.

The International Monetary Fund, which a group of countries led by Germany hope will join the bailout programme to provide greater credibility, says eurozone targets set for Greece are too ambitious and assumptions on reform implementation too optimistic.

The IMF insists that eurozone governments, which now own most of Greece’s debt, should grant it substantial debt relief by extending maturities.

Germany and other eurozone countries say a discussion on such a move can take place in 2018, once Greece completes its bailout reforms. This would also move the politically sensitive debt issue past German elections in the second half of 2017.

New Democracy: Schäuble was more aggressive with us

German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble was far more aggressive with Greece when a right-wing government was in power than the left-wing Syriza-led coalition, New Democracy’s Konstantinos Kyranakis told, adding that the European People’s Party did not work as an alliance during those days.

Tsipras is due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week.

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