Germany's Schaeuble visits Greece amid massive security, dismisses talk of new debt write-off

  • Article by: DEREK GATOPOULOS , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 18, 2013 - 11:40 AM

ATHENS, Greece — Germany's finance minister visited Greece on Thursday amid massive police security, insisting there was "no convenient shortcut" for the country's debt problems despite an alarming increase in poverty and unemployment during the crisis.

The 70-year-old Wolfgang Schaeuble is widely seen in Greece as an enforcer of the country's harsh austerity measures and has been often singled out for criticism by protesters.

Security concerns over his one-day visit — which occurred a day after Parliament narrowly agreed to thousands of public-sector job cuts — were such that 4,000 police were deployed and demonstrations were banned throughout much of central Athens.

Schaeuble, on his first visit to Greece since its financial crisis broke out in 2009, said the country had taken "big steps" to try and balance its budget. But he added that the debt-strapped country had little choice other than to press ahead with painful reforms.

"There is no way around structural and fiscal reforms that are currently being carried out. The only way to achieve sustainable growth is to make the economy competitive and reduce public deficits," Schaeuble said, speaking in English.

"There is no convenient shortcut. We Germans know this. Ten years ago we were the sick man of Europe. We had to take a long and painful path to become the very center of growth and anchor of stability in Europe."

Schaeuble discouraged talk of Greece receiving a second write-off — or 'haircut' — on its public debt following the massive debt restructuring deal agreed with private sector bondholders last year. Most of Greece's debt is now owed to other eurozone governments in the form of bailout loans.

"I would like to ask all of you not to continue with this discussion about a new haircut, as it's not in your interest," he said. He argued that writing off some of the bailout loans Greece owes would undermine confidence in Europe's rescue programs by proving they are not reliable.

"You will destroy any confidence ... If you take guarantees and then you are discussing a haircut — then you are a liar. And I'm not a liar."

He did, however, leave open the possibility of more aid for Greece.

During a press conference later in the day, Schaeuble conceded that if by late 2014 Greece has met its reforms commitments and achieved a primary budget surplus — which excludes the cost of debt servicing — "then we can talk, if it is necessary, about more assistance."

He did not elaborate.

Demonstrations were banned throughout Athens during Schaeuble's trip. The German minister met conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and other senior Greek officials, and later Thursday signed a cooperation agreement between Greece and the state-owned German bank KfW to help small and medium-sized companies.

Police placed parliament and the city's main Syntagma Square off limits to protesters, using tighter security measures than those reserved for heads of government. Busy downtown subway stations were also closed for the day, while traffic restrictions were imposed along the route from Athens International Airport into the capital.

Tough austerity measures have helped keep Greece in the euro but unemployment has surged to 27 percent since the country was first bailed out in 2010 by other euro countries and the International Monetary Fund.

Left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras accused Samaras of trying to help his fellow conservatives in Germany ahead of the federal election there in September.

"Mr. Samaras is acting like a manager for the (German) Christian Democrat party, as Mr. Schaeuble tours the countryside," Tsipras said in parliament Wednesday.

"He is coming here to support his catastrophic policies."

Parliament late Wednesday narrowly approved new austerity measures, demanded by rescue creditors, which will mean mass firings and transfers of workers in Greece's bloated public sector. Unions responded with a new round of large protests.

Several hundred striking municipal workers held a peaceful afternoon rally in Athens after Schaeuble's departure, chanting "Schaeuble out, IMF out."

Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party had described the police's banning of demonstrations during the visit as "fascist and undemocratic."

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