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José Manuel Durão Barroso
President of the European Commission
Statement by President Barroso following the College visit to Athens for the start of the Greek presidency
Athens, 8 January 2014
Thank you very much Mr Prime Minister, dear friend,
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, Happy New Year. And I really believe this year for Europe is going to be better than the last years, namely, in economic terms.
I am very pleased to be here in Athens as Greece embarks on its fifth Council presidency – making it a very experienced pilot of the European Union. As we were saying before this meeting, this is my third Greek presidency. I was cooperating with the Greek presidency in 1994, as foreign minister of my country, in 2003, as Prime Minister of my country, and now, as Commission President, I have the honour and the pleasure to cooperate with the Greek presidency and the leadership of my friend, Antonis Samaras.
We have just met, not only personally - both of us, in a bilateral - but also the full Greek government and the College of Commissioners. And I can tell you that the Greek presidency is, of course, very well prepared and that I see a real determination on the Greek authorities to make it a success for Greece and for Europe. And Greece can count on the full support of the European Commission for that purpose. As the Greek presidency motto says, "Europe is our common quest".
Prime Minister Samaras and I also touched upon developments in the Greek economy and the financial assistance programme. I will go into more detail on this later.
But let me make a general comment, since we are now in a New Year mood, about the economic situation in Europe and what we can expect for this year, namely, regarding the problems that were mentioned in many analyses regarding the euro area.
As I said exactly one year ago, 2013 would be, and it was, the year when the European economy start to turn the corner. And it was, in fact, the year of a change of perceptions and expectations regarding the European economy. Let's not forget that not so much time ago, people were making speculations about Greek exit, about the implosion of the euro, also about the implosion of the European Union.
So, the very fact that we are here in Athens today, celebrating the beginning of the Greek presidency - of a full member of the European Union, and a full member of the euro area - is clear evidence that those predictions were wrong. And that Greece was able to make notable efforts – namely, the Greek people - and that the euro area economy has shown its resilience and that, basically, we are on the right track.
I have said, precisely one year ago, that the existential crisis of the euro would be behind us, and I believe this is the case now. We are, generally speaking, emerging from recession and I hope that this year Greece will get out of the recession.
Last year, Ireland became the first euro area member to emerge successfully from its adjustment programme. We welcomed our 18th euro area member state, Latvia, another country that has made a huge, very demanding, financial assistance programme and now is the country with the highest growth rate in the European Union.
This shows that the programmes do work when they are properly implemented. This is demonstrated by the fact that just now, in recent days, Ireland was able to issue long-term debt at lower levels than countries in the European Union, in the euro area, that did not request a financial programme.
So, you have one country that could not finance itself some time ago, and now exiting the programme, it is able to do it in a better condition than countries that did not need a financial assistance programme. I think that is a very clear demonstration that programmes work, provided they are implemented with determination and, of course, in the right way.
Because let's not forget what was, and is, the goal of the programmes. The goal of the programmes was to avoid disorderly default and to help countries stand on their own feet and be able to finance themselves directly - and not just relying on the solidarity of other European countries.
Let's look at Spain, which had a special programme for the banks. We expect Spain to exit this programme successfully this month. In fact, the support given to the Spanish banks is bearing fruit and this programme has been very successfully implemented.
Take the case of Portugal, where positive growth is back since the second quarter of last year and where the external deficit has been corrected and interest rate spreads are being reduced. And just today, Eurostat figures confirm that for the ninth consecutive month unemployment is going down.
Take also the case of Cyprus - of course it is a more recent programme - but the first signals are also encouraging.
And now, let's take the case of Greece, because I also believe that regarding Greece sometimes there is a perception that is not completely correct, that underestimates the big efforts, the remarkable efforts that the Greek authorities and the Greek people have been doing, particularly over the last 18 months.
Greece is set to emerge from recession this year and Greece is expected now to reach a primary budget surplus. This progress is restoring confidence among Greece's European partners and attracting the attention of international investors.
So, my point is very clear: programmes work and we should not waste the efforts made so far. It would be a mistake to put at risk the successful exit of the countries from the programmes.
Having said that, we know well that there is, there are, extremely difficult situations, including in a country like Greece - social difficulties, hardship, very important sacrifices - and we know that those positive effects that we are already seeing are not immediately felt by the man and woman on the street.
I'm also fully aware of the difficulties the Greek people are going through and I really want to pay tribute to them for their courage and their dignity. And I encourage the Greek people, under the leadership of their government, not to give up and jeopardise what already has been achieved. I think we can say to the Greek people that your efforts and sacrifices are opening a better future.
This year, we face the challenge of firming up the recovery, at a time when unemployment remains at an unacceptable level. To turn the situation around we need to boost investment and particularly to improve access to finance for SMEs. I welcome Greece's focus on these priorities.
So, while we cannot say the crisis is behind us, because we still have unacceptably high levels of unemployment in some of our countries, and we still have problems of financing to the economy, namely to SMEs, meaning that there is still a problem of coherence, financial coherence in the euro area, the reality is that we are solving, one by one, the different problems.
This is also the first year of the new seven-year European budget, which can be a lever for such investment. Together, we must ensure that European Union-funded programmes get off to a solid start.
Once again, let me give the example of Greece. Some time ago, Greece was among the worst performers in terms of absorption of funds. Today Greece is one of the best performers in terms of implementation of the programmes, in terms of absorption capacity. This shows that it is possible to change practices, habits; it is possible if there is a commitment to reform.
For the future, Prime Minister Samaras and I agree that we must go further in terms of European integration, particularly in the euro area.
The Banking Union is one of our top priorities. I welcome the recent political agreement on the Single Resolution Mechanism, which marks the beginning of the end of bank bail-outs. We need to ensure the SRM is finally adopted, from a legal point of the view, before the European elections, to help boost confidence in the European banking sector and get credit flowing to businesses. We absolutely need this leg, the Single Resolution Mechanism, on the body of the European Banking Union.
We must also pursue work on a deeper Economic and Monetary Union, while making sure it maintains and reinforces a strong social dimension. These ideas should build on rules already in place under the so-called European Semester.
I am glad to see that the Greek presidency is also prioritising agreements on key files to boost trade and the single market, as well as an ambitious energy and climate change framework to 2030. We are going to present our framework proposals during this month of January - we, I mean the Commission.
And the Greek presidency's focus on improving the framework for human mobility and on promoting maritime issues will also help to chart our course to recovery together.
Coming back to the Greek situation and the European Union-IMF programme: Let me remind you that in December, the Eurogroup was able to approve the disbursement of 1 billion euro after Greece achieved four important milestones agreed as part of the programme.
However, while the sky is clearing, there are still some clouds on the horizon. The situation is still fragile. It is not the time to slow down the pace of reform. This is the time to use that Greek determination to finally agree the fiscal package, take forward tax and public administration reform, privatisations, improve the business environment and open up product and service markets.
I encourage Greece to use all the means at its disposal – including the help of the Commission's Task Force for Greece – to help these reforms along. The Commission continues to stand by Greece in the efforts to build a better future.
I want to say that to you, because I am very proud of it. While others some time ago had doubts about Greece in the euro area, the European Commission stood always by the side of Greece – always - saying that it was fundamental for Greece but also fundamental for the European Union and for European integration. That was the position taken consistently by the European Commission, and we remain loyal to that position.
Prime Minister Samaras, dear friend, this presidency offers Greece a chance to show that the next time is not to be defined by the crisis but by the lessons Greece has learned from the crisis, and that we all have learned as well.
I am confident that Greece, which has always given such an important contribution to European civilisation - in fact, without Greece there would be no European civilisation as we understand it - is going to use this presidency to show that modern Greece - not only classic Greece, modern Greece - can give also a very important contribution to the European Union.
I wish you and the Greek people all the best. You can count on the European Commission to help you deliver our common objectives.
I thank you.