I made clear before I became a European Commissioner that I wanted my first visit to one of our Member States to be to Greece, which has lived through so much these past five years. And I am very pleased to have been able to make it to Athens before the end of the year.
I have had a series of very useful, constructive and in some cases enlightening meetings. I have had the occasion to hold extensive discussions with Prime Minister Samaras as well as the Finance Minister Ghikas Hardouvelis and several other members of the government. I have also met with the Governor of the Bank of Greece Yannis Stournaras.
I have also met with representatives of the social partners 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 site of 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.
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. We forecast growth of almost 3% next year, which is one of the highest rates in the European Union.
And with that growth, the employment situation is beginning to improve – in fact the highest rate of increase in employment in the European Union in the third quarter of this year was here in Greece. Of course, unemployment remains at levels that are absolutely dramatic and unacceptable.
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.
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 that for me, there was never any question that Greece should remain in the eurozone. I fought for this when I was Finance Minister of France. Greece’s place is in the eurozone. Greece needs the euro, and the euro needs Greece.
And you should know that Jean-Claude Juncker also fought for this as President of the Eurogroup, as did the previous European Commission, strongly and consistently. In our current functions we remain strong allies to Greece.
I know that the crisis has had a major human toll. This was not caused by Europe – without European solidarity Greece would have been in a still worse situation – but we need to recognise it.
The Commission is committed to supporting Greece in taking forward this process of necessary change and modernisation of the economy. A lot has been achieved but the gains that have been in terms of improved confidence and attractiveness of the Greece to investors need to be built upon and consolidated.
That’s why Greece also must show continued commitment to both fiscal responsibility and further structural reforms. This is a message I have passed clearly in my meetings with the Greek authorities here in Athens. It’s not specific to Greece. Structural reforms are a necessity for the whole euro area.
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, open but determined.
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.
Our aim is to conclude the current review, and the second assistance programme, in good condition and fast, with a credible, balanced set of reforms and fiscal measures to help strengthen Greece’s economic recovery. That is the only purpose of my visit today. On the one hand, there has been clear progress in a number of areas. 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.
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.
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 all have a little more time to bring these talks to a successful conclusion, which is in everybody’s interest.
After those introductory words I would now like to conclude and give you the chance to ask me a few questions.