Greece awaits Obama trip amid tough bailout talks
ATHENS, Greece – Greece’s government says it was facing pressure from the International Monetary Fund to aggressively scale back union powers and employment rights, as the White House confirmed Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama will pay a post-election visit to Athens.
Obama’s Nov. 15 trip could boost efforts by the left-wing government in Athens to press for debt relief from European bailout lenders, as the country’s national debt approaches 180 percent of Greece’s stagnant gross domestic product. Obama will travel on to Germany after his Greek visit.
Greece is pressing bailout lenders to start talks on debt relief measures – with longer maturities and a more even repayment schedule – before the end of the year but is facing opposition from lead rescue lender Germany.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras discussed the issue with French Foreign Minister Jean Marc Ayrault.
Bailout negotiators returned to Athens last week after the lenders backed the payout of a loan instalment worth 2.8 billion euros ($3.1 billion). Payment wasformally approved Tuesday by the eurozone rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism.
Labor Minister George Katrougalos said IMF negotiators had adopted a tough stance at the start of the talks.
The government, he said, was opposed to easing firing rules for struggling businesses and wanted to restore collective wage bargaining agreements between unions and employers that were stopped under previous bailout agreements.
“It’s the usual tactic in these negotiations. The starting positions are very tough. Talks don’t start with a position that will lead to a solution,” Katrougalos told pro-government Sto Kokkino radio. “There are the Europeans and there is the extreme player (the IMF) which has adopted extreme neoliberal positions.”
The minister said the government, despite IMF pressure, had ruled out a return to negotiations on pension reform and tax policy.
Bailout lenders want Greece to rapidly reduce the risk to banks by clearing non-performing loans, and describe current mortgage protection rules as being too generous. They also insist job guarantees are holding up the country’s economic recovery.