ATHENS – He had supposedly been sidelined, but Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has returned to a prominent role in stalled talks with international lenders and now is an obstacle again, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.
With Greece facing a likely default and even Eurozone exit if it can’t make a 300-million euro ($327.5 million) payment to the International Monetary Fund on June 5, Varoufakis has again injected himself into the negotiations to convince creditors to release a delayed 7.2-billion euro ($7.86 billion) installment.
After Varoufakis created more confusion with statements regarding possible tax reforms which were almost immediately revoked, Juncker said the finance chief is “not helping the process.”
Varoufakis had told reporters that the government was considering introducing a “small” levy on ATM withdrawals. Two hours later, the government said it wasn’t his idea but the troika’s, and that it was being withdrawn after “objections from the Finance Ministry” although Varoufakis himself had proposed it.
With speculation growing whether Varoufakis would last in the job, Juncker told the MNI news agency that, “Mr. Varoufakis is the finance minister of a country that has to confront huge problems and he doesn’t give the feeling that he knows that.’
Asked by the MNI reporter whether he trusted Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Juncker took 14 seconds to answer “yes” and said Tsipras was becoming “increasingly responsible.”
Tsipras, leader of the Radical Left SYRIZA that has brought the Independent Greeks (ANEL) into a coalition, won Jan. 25 snap elections on the promise to reverse austerity measures imposed by previous governments on orders of the troika of the European Union-IMF-European Central Bank.
He has dug in his heels in the negotiations as the country is going broke and a four-month bailout extension is set to run out on June 20, if Greece gets that far without going under.
After Varoufakis had ired his Eurozone colleagues with a combative stance in earlier talks, Varoufakis elevated other government officials to leading spots but the finance chief has come back to take over and seized the headlines again.
In the interview Juncker said it was critical for a deal to be reached by June 5 although virtually no progress has been made in three months and as Varoufakis has blamed the lenders for the impasse.
A TAXING PROCESS
Referring to proposed changes to the Greek Value Added Tax (VAT), Juncker said these reforms must yield 1.8 billion euros, or 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product, in order to narrow a fiscal gap.
He said pension reform was also crucial, especially ending early retirements as troika officials complained the benefits are too generous even after being cut 30 percent and more. But he said that labor reforms could be delayed if other concessions are made, which Tsipras refuses to do.
Greek government sources, as they incorrectly predicted for weeks, again said a deal was imminent although there were no signs of that beyond the press releases they issued.
Greece wants an emergency Eurozone meeting on June 3, two days before the IMF payment is due.