As a European Commissioner, I wanted one of my first visits as a Commissioner to be in Greece, which has lived through so much these past years – and I kept my promise: It’s the 4th time since 2012 that I am here in Greece, I came twice as Finance Minister of my country, France, I came as an MEP in September 2014 and now I am here as European Commissioner. And I am very pleased to have made it to Athens before the end of the year.
I have had a series of very useful, very constructive and in some cases enlightening meetings. I have had the occasion to hold extensive discussions with Prime Minister Samaras twice as well as the Finance Minister whom I know well, of course, from the Eurogroup and Ecofin Council Ghikas Hardouvelis and several other members of the government: Mr Mitsotakis, in charge of Public reform, Mr Skrekas for Development and Mr. Vroutsis for Employment. I have also met with the Governor of the Bank of Greece my old friend Yannis Stournaras. I have also met with representatives of the social partners yesterday here in the Representation to discuss the implementation of reforms in Greece and the future developments of the Greek economy; andI will conclude my visit shortly with a working lunch with Yannis Boutaris, the Mayor of Thessaloniki.
I was very pleased to be able to visit the Eleftherias – Koridalos metro station, to see a concrete example of how European Union funding is being put to good use here in Athens to improve the economy as well as the environment, creating jobs and delivering tangible benefits to citizens’ lives. And, I want to say a word there: That’s what Europe is about. Europe is not punishment, Europe is not constraint. Europe is support, Europe is about development, it’s about growth and creating jobs. And that’s the only goal that the European Union and the Commission pursue here in Greece.
Finally, to tell you what I’ve done, I met a few minutes ago the Mayor of Kallithea in order to see how the pilot experience of the minimum guaranteed income is laid on the ground and how it can be generalised in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen, Greece has been through an unprecedented fiscal adjustment and reform effort. The country has made immense progress and I think it is vey clear that it has now turned a corner. Most importantly, growth has returned to Greece. We forecast growth of almost 3% next year, which is, as you may know, after Ireland, one of the highest rates in the European Union. And with that growth, we also see that the employment situation which is so important is beginning to improve – in fact in Greece today there is the highest rate of increase in employment in the European Union in the third quarter of this year. Of course, this is not a matter of satisfaction by itself or even satisfaction, and unemployment remains here at levels that are absolutely dramatic and socially unacceptable. This is why job creation and the fight of unemployment must be absolute priority as well as for the Greek authorities and for the European Union as a whole.
Looking back at the fiscal side, the headline deficit has fallen from over 15% of GDP in 2009 to an estimated deficit of just 1.6% of GDP in 2014 and is expected to reach balance next year. The authorities are now targeting a primary surplus of 3.0% of GDP for 2015: indeed Greece now has the highest primary surplus in the euro area after Germany. This proves how impressive, how consistent, how strong are the efforts made and these efforts mean reforms for the people also – I am very conscious of their sacrifices.
So where do we stand now? Greece's place in the eurozone is no longer in question as it was – for some – at the depth of the crisis is 2011 and 2012. Let me underline again that for me, there was never any question that Greece should remain in the eurozone. I fought for that when I was Finance Minister of France back in 2012. The first time I met PM Samaras was in the Elysian Palace, it was in June 2012, after meeting in Los Cabos for G20 and it was always my personal conviction that Greece’s place is in the Eurozone, that Greece needs the Euro and that the Eurozone needs Greece. And you should know that Jean-Claude Juncker, now President of the Commission, also fought for this as President of the Eurogroup, as did the previous European Commission, strongly and consistently. And you must be reassured that in current functions, President Juncker and myself as Commissioner, remain strong allies to Greece. My visit here is in full agreement and in the name of the President of the Commission.
I know that the crisis has had a major human toll. And I must say here – I want to say – that, contrary to what some pretend, this was not caused by Europe – I am sure that without European solidarity Greece would have been in a still worse situation. Why were those policies necessary? They don’t create the problem, they enter into force because there was a problem: a non-sustainable economic and social model which needed to be reformed – and if it hadn’t been, it would have collapsed today. I know the human toll, we have to recognise it. I do recognise it. But, again, the conciliation path was necessary.
The Commission is committed to supporting Greece in taking forward this process of necessary change and continuing modernisation of the economy. A lot has been achieved in that field too but the gains that have been in terms of improved confidence and attractiveness of Greece to investors need to be built upon and consolidated. As many Member States of the euro area, Greece must show continued commitment to both fiscal responsibility and further structural reforms. And I insist on that, it is not a Greek specificity: Structural reforms are a necessity for the whole Euro area. This is a message I have passed clearly in my meetings with the Greek authorities here in Athens.
I remain absolutely convinced that Europe needs a strong Greece. This will only be achieved by continuing what has already been successfully implemented.
The Commission has been engaged in intensive discussions in recent days and weeks with the Greek authorities and with the IMF and ECB. Our approach has been firm but constructive, it has been friendly but also determined and always open. I myself have spoken on numerous occasions with Antonis Samaras, with Evangelos Venizelos, with Christine Lagarde, with Mario Draghi, to help move these difficult discussions forward. And we did, finally, in Eurogroup, and that development authorises me to be here with you today.
Our aim is to conclude the second assistance programme in good conditions and fast. This is in the interest of all actors. For this to happen – that’s the only purpose of my visit today, that’s the political issue I want to deal with, how to conclude the programme and the only political issue I am concerned about – we need first to conclude the current review as soon as possible with a credible, balanced set of reforms and fiscal measures to help strengthen Greece's economic recovery. On the one hand, there has been clear progress in a number of areas – I said that and I repeat it. On the other hand, this progress has not been as rapid as could have been hoped – or as would have been necessary to allow for a conclusion of the review in the coming days. So there is still some work to be done: Progress is huge, but we need to make the last steps together. The Commission is dedicated to that in terms of working on it.
That’s why it has been agreed in principle, pending formal confirmation by Member States, that there will be a technical extension of the current programme for up to two months. Those two months is a short period, it will be intense but it has to be useful. We need those two months to close the review and to decide on the necessary reforms to do so. This is not about making the so-called ‘Troika’ stay longer than was planned. Let’s be clear that there is nothing dramatic about this extension: it is simply a way to ensure we have a little more time to bring these talks to a successful conclusion, which is in everybody’s interest. At the end of this short and technical extension, if we succeed in closing the review – which I hope, which I will work for with the teams of the Commission – by the end of February next year, the Troika will leave Greece and we will move to another phase of our relationship with this country.
That’s what I wanted to say: We need to prepare the next step, the next phase of our relationship. Greece has wisely requested a credit line to ensure financial stability, to benefit from the support of its lenders if need be. This credit line, if we succeed, will be complemented by a Precautionary programme by the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, which will keep a key, but a different role, in this process. It’s not Troika: It’s the ECB on one hand with its credit line and the IMF on the other with its precautionary programme. Reforms should and will continue in Greece, as they do in all EU Member States.
Finally, the Commission will also continue its technical assistance to the reform process. The Task Force set up in 2011 has proven very useful and its work has been complemented by PM Samaras and all ministers I have met. I want to thank Horst Reichenbach and his colleagues for the tremendous work they have achieved here on behalf of the Commission. With the end of the Programme, the mandate of the Task Force as we know it will also be terminated – again, it’s the next step, the next phase, much more confident, with a lighter surveillance that we are preparing. The Technical Assistance to Greece will, however, continue under my authority as Commissioner, as actively as today and as long as necessary. The Task Force team will be integrated to what we call in Brussels DG ECFIN – the Economic and Financial Directorate General, which is under my authority.
To conclude, let me thank the Greek authorities for their hospitality during my visit, which was exceptional, and their warm support to the Commission. They know how much the Commission stands by Greece, and will continue to do so in the years to come.
My final words are for the Greek people: The Greek people have suffered enough over the past four years. It was needed because, again, the economic and social model was not sustainable and the economy needed to be modernised – so were public finances and so is the state and public administration. Now that their efforts – the efforts of the people – are starting to pay off, it is time to consolidate what has been achieved and to move on to the next step, the next phase; which should be about growth, about normalisation with a different kind of cooperation, equally supportive but I can assure you – that’s my personal and political will and the will of President Juncker – less intrusive than it was in the past years.
There are still reforms to be made in Greece to accelerate growth and job creation. The European Commission is here and will continue to be here to support the Greek economy, to support the Greek people. That’s our only purpose and that’s my only purpose and I can tell you that I will be back here in Greece in 2015, in order to see how the next step is implemented.