Strikes intensifying pressure on Athens
EU may seek deeper cost cuts
ATHENS - Greek customs officials and finance ministry employees walked off the job yesterday to protest government austerity measures designed to pull the country out of a debt crisis that has shaken the entire eurozone.
The three-day customs strike will affect imports and exports, with a skeleton staff processing only certain items such as perishable goods and pharmaceuticals, and could affect the supply of fuel.
Finance Ministry employees - including those at Greece’s much-maligned statistics service, which was accused by the European Union of helping cause the crisis by faking the country’s economic statistics - walked off the job for four days.
The strikes came as European finance ministers in Brussels warned Athens that it would have to prepare even tougher budget cuts if its current austerity program can’t reduce its massive deficit from 12.7 percent of economic output to 8.7 percent this year.
Athens has until March 16 to report back to the EU on its progress. But the EU’s top economy official, Olli Rehn, said yesterday that he wanted the Greek government to supply answers by Friday on how it used currency swaps and how that affected debt and deficit figures.
The measures that Prime Minister George Papandreou’s new Socialist government has announced so far have already caused a backlash from trade unions.
Also yesterday, police said a bomb exploded at the offices of American financial services firm JPMorgan Chase & Co., causing no injuries. The blast occurred early evening yesterday in an upscale area of central Athens, following a warning telephone call to an Athens newspaper.
Eurozone leaders pledged last week to help Greece “if needed to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as a whole’’ - but did not say how any bailout would work. EU countries that use the common euro currency have pledged to help Greece if it can’t repay its debts, but want Athens to make big spending cuts first.
If Greece shows it isn’t on course to meet its targets, the finance ministers of the other 15 eurozone countries would vote on whether tougher action is needed and would impose extra measures on Greece, said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who has led EU talks on the crisis.
The new spending cuts would focus on raising value-added tax and energy taxes, setting new excise duties on luxury goods.
Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou insisted that he is already ahead of schedule on swinging budget reductions and that public finances reported a slight surplus last month thanks to a one-off tax on large companies.