Greek bailout talks hit snag over pension cuts

Posted Feb. 08, 2012, at 7:45 p.m.

ATHENS, Greece — Crucial talks to discuss austerity cuts in Greece broke down after eight hours Wednesday as leaders of the three parties backing the country’s coalition government failed to agree to demands from international creditors for substantial cuts to state and private pensions.

Papademos left the meeting to negotiate with the ‘troika’ of Greece’s creditors — the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on the cuts needed for Greece to reach the fiscal targets prescribed by the troika for 2012. He is joined in the negotiation by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Labor Minister Giorgos Koutroumanis.

A statement issued from office of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos’ office says that the Prime Minister and the three leaders — socialist George Papandreou, conservative Antonis Samaras and right-wing populist Giorgos Karatzaferis — “agreed on all points (presented by the creditors) except one which calls for further discussion and elaboration with the troika.”

At stake is a (euro) 130 billion bailout that is vital if Greece is to avoid bankruptcy as early as late March.

The leaders’ talks hit a snag over a (euro) 300 million gap in cuts needed to reach the 2012 fiscal target. The troika has proposed cuts in supplementary state and private pensions above a threshold level of (euro) 150. Private pensions in Greece are state-guaranteed.

Samaras has made clear his objections, proposing as an alternative a (euro) 300 threshold plus “fiscally equivalent measures.”

Among the proposals the leaders did accept is a 22 percent cut in the gross monthly minimum wage from (euro) 751 to (euro) 586, with the minimum wage dropping to (euro) 527 a month for those under 25.

On leaving the meeting, Karatzaferis told reporters that “I made my positions clear from the beginning…I wanted to support Mr. Samaras on that [pensions] issue .”

Private media are reporting that, if Papademos’ talks with the troika hit a snag, he will call the leaders on a meeting again, either overnight or early Thursday.

Complicating the negotiations are the political leaders’ posturing over which party cares more for the people. Samaras, speaking from his party’s headquarters, said that he “wants to ease the people’s suffering,” adding that the negotiation is difficult and that “for some, it is a novelty to negotiate,” a barb aimed at Papandreou, whose two-year socialist government gave way to the c oalition government last November. Samaras is the favorite at polls to win a possible snap election.

Speaking through his party spokesman, Panos Beglitis, Papandreou countered that he would not let Samaras’ objections on supplementary pensions hurt people’s main pensions. “We are ready to scuttle any agreement,” on that point, said Beglitis.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the lack of progress made during Wednesday’s talks highlights the “certain amount of political theater involved here.”

“The political leaders in Athens are campaigning,” he added. “They need to be seen by the Greek population as fighting until the very last drop of blood. … They are facing off against the Germans and IMF and the rest of the world.”

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