ATHENS – A day after he said he would accelerate the lagging pace of privatizations to meet the demands of international lenders, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras now has refused to meet with them and said he will not allow the country’s public water utilities to be sold off to private companies.
Unions for the workers at the utility had fiercely objected to the idea of being privatized and Samaras, following in line with a court decision that it should stay in government hands, is going to relent.
That decision came after a meeting he had on July 14 with key ministers and his coalition partner, PASOK Socialist leader and his Deputy Premier/Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who confirmed it to reporters, as did officials close to Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader.
The court ruling relates to the Athens Water and Sewage Company (EYDAP) but will also apply to Thessaloniki’s water board (EYATH).
Selling the companies, along with a number of other state enterprises and properties, has been a standing demand of the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) since it put up the first of two bailouts of 240 billion euros ($327 billion) in 2010 to keep Greece’s economy from collapsing.
Samaras has been under pressure from the poll-leading major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) which has objected vehemently to the privatization program in which its leader, Alexis Tsipras, said amounted to a cheap sell-off of the country’s assets at rock bottom prices, although even that has failed to attract many bidders.
It was unclear how Troika envoys, who are in Athens until July 17 on an informal inspection, would respond to the decision but Samaras, who is due to fly to Brussels on July 16, rejected a request by its mission chiefs to meet him, sources told Kathimerini.
After being elected in 2012, Samaras – who opposed austerity measures when he was out of office – quickly accepted them and followed Troika demands but since Greece has shown signs of emerging from a seven-year-long recession, he has become more independent and has resisted implementing more reforms.
But a meeting between Finance Minister Gikas Hardouvelis and Troika chiefs on July 14 focused on Greece’s lagging efforts to privatize state assets. Four years ago, the Troika said privatization could bring in 50 billion euros but only about 3.5 billion has been realized so far.
It was reported that the Troika is frustrated by the lack of progress in privatizations and the failure by government officials to make good on pledges to set up a bi-ministerial body to coordinate the lagging drive, in the aftermath of the country’s tax collections chief also being forced out of office for reportedly going after high-level tax cheats as the Troika wanted.
With his party lagging behind SYRIZA, Samaras has become more independent from the Troika and is moving toward trying to lighten the effect of big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings and promised no more of it, although pensioners are expected to take another big whack in benefit losses.
Troika officials have said that they would consider going along with that if the government can find other ways to make up lost revenues and stick to economic goals and reform targets.
Samaras is also trying to position his administration in upcoming talks to restructure or reduce Greece’s debt, including the possibility of a so-called “haircut” in which the government would walk away from a big chunk of what it owes, forcing taxpayers in the other 17 Eurozone countries to pick up the tab for generations of wild overspending and runaway patronage by New Democracy and PASOK.
“A political negotiation is always restricted by technical requirements,” Venizelos told reporters, adding that those requirements should be “analyzed properly,” suggesting that a more long-term approach was necessary.
Venizelos, who as finance minister in a previous PASOK government stiffed public investors with 74 percent losses, with many Diaspora bondholders nearly wiped out out, didn’t explain what he meant, a usual occurrence from him.
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