Greece has taken over the rotating six-month EU presidency but its economy and politics is still in turmoil. Will this mean any European reform programme the nation has in mind is completely derailed? Our secret columnist in Brussels Schadenfreude seeks to find out
When a country assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, it is helpful if its politics and the economy are in at least moderately good shape – leaving room for policy-makers to face up to the new tasks. Greece has experience of serving as the presidency and has hopefully got over the suspicions, which it had in the early days of membership, when its motto seemed to be: ‘We fear the Europeans even when they are bringing the gifts, which were our reason for joining the club. We had to doctor our figures a bit to meet their requirements.’
But the Greek Presidency is up against it on both counts. Although it is emerging from the crisis, it is still living in austerity. Its public spending is under the control, which it had lost. It still has high debt levels and according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, its economy will shrink in 2014. It has the highest unemployment among OECD countries with 70 per cent of its unemployed remaining jobless for more than 12 months
The country’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has forecast: “In 2014 Greece will return to the markets and seek to become a real country again.” Note the “seek”. But the political situation is unstable. At the last count, the Conservative-led coalition held only 155 of the 300 parliamentary seats – which in practice means that it cannot count on a majority. The ultra-right wing Golden Dawn Party has gained ground during the crisis. The left-wing Siriza Party is speaking confidently of taking the lead in the May elections to the European Parliament
In its spell in the presidency, Greece then faces a string of challenges. Last year the British forced through the first ever reduction in the European Union budget. They will certainly be at it again in 2014 and, apart from the member states that are net winners; the new European Parliament majority is unlikely to acquiesce on ‘less Europe’.
Within the European Council, there will be much talk of reform – although perhaps not yet the now overdue British démarche on a new settlement. The EU-United States negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and investment Partnership will approach the break items and the presidency will be expected to find the compromises and balances. There also needs to be a start on the planned single market in services. And then there are all the unknowns. The Greeks will do well to get through presidency with any real achievements.