War of words rages between Athens and Madrid

Mariano Rajoy [European Council]

Spain’s centre-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hit back yesterday (1 March) against accusations from Greece’s leftist premier that Spain and Portugal had led a conservative conspiracy to topple his anti-austerity government.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Spain and Portugal had taken a hard line in talks on the eurozone extending the Greek bailout programme because they feared the rise of the left in their own countries.

Greeks have directed much of their fury about years of austerity dictated by international creditors at Germany, the biggest contributor to their country’s €240 billion bailout.

But in a speech on Saturday to his Syriza party, which won an election on 25 January, Tsipras turned on Madrid and Lisbon, accusing them of attempting to sabotage the negotiations for political reasons.

‘Axis of powers’

“We found opposing us an axis of powers … led by the governments of Spain and Portugal which for obvious political reasons attempted to lead the entire negotiations to the brink,” Tsipras said.

“Their plan was and is to wear down, topple or bring our government to unconditional surrender before our work begins to bear fruit and before the Greek example affects other countries,” he said, adding: “And mainly before the election in Spain.”

Rajoy said Spain had shown solidarity with Greece as part of the eurozone by helping with its bailout and urged Greece to fulfill its obligations and keep its promises.

“We are not responsible for the frustration generated by the radical Greek left that promised the Greeks something it couldn’t deliver on,” he said.

The Greek government on Sunday sought to play down the row, saying Tsipras was obliged to tell Greeks how the negotiations went and that his comments had been misinterpreted.

“The new Greek government does not categorize European countries and people as friends or enemies,” a government official told Reuters. “Any misinterpretation of the Greek prime minister’s speech does not help the dialogue.”

Spain, Portugal and Ireland have faced stringent austerity programmes and structural reforms in return for European assistance, in Spain’s case for its troubled banking system.

Tsipras rejected criticism that Athens had staged a climbdown to secure an extension of its financial lifeline from the eurozone, saying anger among German conservatives showed that his government had won concessions.

Greek victory?

Spain’s anti-establishment Podemos movement has topped some opinion polls, making it a serious threat to Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party in an election which must be held by the end of this year.

Portugal will also have elections after the summer, but no anti-austerity force as potent as Syriza or Podemos has so far emerged there.

Ireland will hold an election in 2016. Opinion polls show the left-wing Sinn Fein has become the closest rival to Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s centre-right Fine Gael party.

In an interview published before Tsipras made his speech, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho denied that Portugal had taken a hard line in negotiations on the Greek deal at the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers in February.

Passos Coelho aligned himself with eurozone governments which have called for policies to promote economic growth but without trying to walk away from austerity as in Greece.

Portugal had to take its own bailout in 2011 but left the programme last year. Finance Minister Maria Luis Albuquerque said on Saturday Lisbon would start repaying its loans to the IMF next month, giving back €6 billion.

Greece remains in its EU/IMF programme, almost five years and two bailouts after it had to seek international help.

Tsipras has portrayed the Eurogroup deal as a victory for Greece, even though it meant extending the bailout programme he had promised voters to scrap.

So far he has public backing. A poll conducted by the University of Macedonia for SKAI TV showed 56% of Greeks believed the extension had been a success, compared with 24% who said it represented a failure.

The anti-austerity Syriza party marked a stunning victory in a Greek snap election held on 25 January, but did not ensure an absolute majority.

Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, said the “vicious cycle of austerity” was over, triggering mixed reactions in the EU.

Tsipras stated that the Greek public debt is not viable, and asked for its restructuring, which amounts to 177% of Greece's GDP.

>> Read: Greek leftist scores victory over austerity

Greece secured a four-month extension of its financial rescue on 24 February, when its eurozone partners approved a reform plan that backed down on key leftist measures and promised that spending to alleviate social distress would not derail its budget.

>> Read: Eurozone approves Greek reform plan with reservations

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