ATHENS – Greece assumes the rotating, six-month largely symbolic role of the European Union Presidency on Jan. 1 with hopes to convince critics who thought the country should be passed over that it can erase its image as corrupt, inefficient and unrecalcitrant and push for reforms in areas in which it has been derided as failing: human rights for immigrants, fighting tax evasion and shoring up the euro.
The government said it will be a “Presidency of hope for a better Europe” as Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has pledged to European counterparts and citizens.
At Zappeion Exhibition Hall in the “heart” of Athens which will serve as the main venue for dozens of meetings of European officials over the next six months, construction workers are putting the final renovation touches, testing the technological equipment, while the City’s Philharmonic Band is rehearsing constantly.
Greece will try show it’s worthy of the role even as it deals with record unemployment and poverty worsened by austerity measures the government imposed on orders of international lenders in return for bailouts and with an ongoing economic crisis. Negotiations are still going on with the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) about reforms and a 2014 budget gap.
During its term, the government will also have to worry about the results of the May, 2014 European Parliament elections and hope the ruling parties of Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives and his partner, the PASOK Socialists, face a referendum of sorts on their policy of supporting continuing austerity.
The major opposition party Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras said he believes the ruling parties will be repudiated so much that snap elections will be needed in Greece that will bring his party to power.
SYRIZA wants the bailout money but doesn’t want to pay it back and said it will restore pay cuts, bring down tax hikes, restore all pensions and hire back everyone the government fired – but didn’t say from where the money will come to do that or how Greece can operate without loans because it’s broke.
Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas assured reporters that Greece, which has set a budget of 50 million euros ($68.49 million) is ready and will concentrate on safeguarding the euro it almost brought down; strengthening the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), combating a recession entering its seventh year in Greece, and other common challenges, such as migration.
The first priority of its EU Presidency is the full implementation of the Compact for Growth and Jobs through actions which will help promote development, ease access to loans for small businesses, as well as the social impact of the crisis. Under this chapter, Greece also aims to promote the dialogue with other strategic partners on a free trade agreement, the government said, according to the Xinhua news agency.
The second priority is the deepening of the EMU through progress in deliberations regarding the banking union. Athens aims at concrete legislative measures to deal with issues concerning transparency in financial transactions and tax evasion, which critics deride as a joke given that tax cheats abound in the country.
The third priority is the tackling of illegal immigration, striking the right balance with the protection of human rights, another area in which Greece has a dubious record and with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, whose leaders have been arrested on charges of running a criminal gang, have been accused of organizing beatings of immigrants.
The government earlier in the year conducted widely-criticized roundup of illegal immigrants and has been cited by human rights groups with keeping many in inhuman conditions in detention centers. The focus here is on cooperation with third countries in regards to migratory flows, increasing funding for EU countries that are facing heavier burdens and promoting the common asylum policy.
The fourth priority concerns the EU Maritime Policy. The Greek Presidency will seek the adoption of a text on maritime policy with emphasis put on security and growth, officials said without detailing what they meant.
This is the fifth time that Greece has held the symbolic office since its accession to the European Communities in 1981.
This one comes as the country has a record high unemployment rates after six years of deep recession, widespread tax dodging, and as a maritime nation faces an increased challenge of illegal migration influx.
Greece hopes that a successful tenure will help alter the country’s image as corrupt, inefficient and unrecalcitrant.