Greece offers olive branch as search for allies begins

A man walks past closed businesses in central Athens on January 29, 2015 (AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki)
Greece\’s anti-austerity government was to begin a European charm offensive Sunday aimed at building consensus on renegotiating its 240-billion-euro ($270 billion) bailout, even as Germany insisted it would not support any debt relief.
Just hours before Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis headed to Paris to seek support for a renegotiation of the bailout, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he believed a deal could be reached with the EU and IMF.
"No side is seeking conflict and it has never been our intention to act unilaterally on Greek debt," Tsipras said in a statement issued to Bloomberg News.
Varoufakis has talks scheduled with French Finance Minister Michel Sapin and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, before heading to London and Rome.
Sapin has already said the EU should be open to discussions with the new Greek government on restructuring its debt or extending the bailout terms.
In its first meeting with creditors since it took office a week ago, the Greek government clashed with the head of the eurozone finance ministers on Friday over its plans to rethink its rescue package and to halve Greece\’s debt.
Tsipras, who will visit Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande next week, said his plans did not mean Greece would renege on its commitments to the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
"On the contrary, it means that we need time to breathe and create our own medium-term recovery programme," he said.
This includes aiming to balance the budget — excluding debt repayments — and clamping down on tax evasion, corruption and policies which favour only a wealthy few, he said.
Neither he nor Varoufakis are intending to visit Germany, which has shouldered the bulk of Greece\’s loans and which strongly objects to Athens\’ stated plans.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday ruled out fresh debt relief, telling the Hamburger Abendblatt daily: "There has already been voluntary debt forgiveness by private creditors, banks have already slashed billions from Greece\’s debt."
"I do not envisage fresh debt cancellation," she said, as a new poll for broadcaster ZDF found 76 percent of Germans oppose any reduction in debt.
Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb also oppose any debt relief.
Despite a restructuring in 2012, Greece is still lumbered with a debt pile of more than 315 billion euros, upwards of 175 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — an EU record.
But in its first week in power, the government scrapped the privatisation of Greece\’s two main ports and the state power company and announced a major increase in the minimum wage.
Varoufakis has further raised the stakes by saying that Greece wanted direct access to its EU-IMF creditors and would no longer work with their widely hated fiscal audit staff team, known as the "troika".
Martin Schulz, the German head of the European Parliament, said this position was "irresponsible", and afterwards the Greek minister appeared to row back slightly.
Varoufakis told the To Vima weekly that the troika was not authorised to renegotiate the bailout, and so "why should they waste their energy and their time?"
Varoufakis made his outspoken remarks after a strained meeting on Friday with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who represents finance ministers from the 19-nation eurozone.
Dijsselbloem warned Athens that "taking unilateral steps or ignoring previous arrangements is not the way forward".
Greece has been promised another 7.2 billion euros in funds from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank, but this is dependent on the completion of a review of reforms at the end of February.
Varoufakis has said his government does not want the loans, but there are concerns Greece cannot survive without them.
A particular issue is Greece\’s banks, which are helping the state stay afloat by purchasing its treasury bills — and which are being supported by the ECB.
Bank of Finland governor Erkki Liikanen, who sits on the ECB\’s governing council, said it cannot continue lending Greece money unless Athens extends its bailout programme.
"Greece\’s programme extension will expire at the end of February so some kind of solution must be found, otherwise we can\’t continue lending," he told public broadcaster Yle.
The stunning success of Tsipras\’ hard-left Syriza party in last Sunday\’s polls sent shockwaves through the continent and has lent encouragement to other anti-austerity parties.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid on Saturday in support of the Spanish party Podemos, which has been surging in polls ahead of elections later this year.
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