Greek leaders face crunch talks, unions strike

07.02.2012 08:40

(Reuters) - Greek leaders face crunch talks on Tuesday to agree on unpopular reforms to secure a 130-billion-euro ($170 billion) bailout and avert a chaotic debt default which could threaten its future in the euro zone.

The leaders are caught between their increasingly frustrated partners in the European Union for failing to pass the reforms quickly and workers who went on strike on Tuesday to protest against the austerity measures.

European Union (EU) officials say the full package must be agreed with Greece and approved by the euro zone, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund before February 15 to allow time for complex legal procedures involved in the bond swap to be completed in time for a March 20 bond redemption.

In some euro zone countries, including Germany and Finland, parliamentary approval is required to raise the bailout money.

In Paris, German Chancellor Angel Merkel on Monday expressed the exasperation among euro zone leaders at seemingly endless arguing in Athens that has yet to produce a definitive acceptance of the austerity and reform demanded by the lenders.

"I honestly can't understand how additional days will help. Time is of the essence. A lot is at stake for the entire euro zone," she told a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But leaders of the three parties in the coalition government appeared to need at least one additional day.

The office of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former central banker who heads a government of politicians, said that a meeting of leaders from the conservative, socialist and far-right parties due on Monday had been postponed to Tuesday.

No reason was given for the delay. Papademos held further talks with the "troika" of lenders - the European Commission, ECB and IMF - on Monday.

The party leaders, positioning themselves for a likely general election in April, have balked at accepting another package of deeply unpopular wage and pension reductions, job cuts and tougher tax enforcement measures.

Alarmed by the prospect of yet more budget cuts, Greece's two main trade unions said they would hold a 24-hour strike on Tuesday in protest against policies they say have only driven the economy into a downward spiral.

Demonstrations are planned in central Athens.

PATIENCE WEARING THIN

Greeks watched the political drama with the same exasperation they have shown throughout the nation's nearly three-year crisis, mixed with fear of the consequences of leaving the euro.

"We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are lost either way but political leaders have to agree," said Kosmas Georgiou, a 31-year old company inspector. "Going back to the drachma is not an option, it's disaster."

"They are delaying this just to look like heroes."

Merkel made clear that her patience was wearing thin on a deal that affects not only Greece but the wider currency bloc, which fears that a default would hit much larger economies such as Spain and Italy.

One government official said the entire Greek side had to agree terms of the rescue, which would be the second for Athens since 2010, with international lenders before the next meeting of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers.

No date has been set for the Eurogroup meeting, and a European Commission spokesman said it would be held only when Greece had made a commitment to the deal.

Papademos said after five hours of talks on Sunday that party chiefs had agreed measures including wage cuts and other reforms as part of spending cuts worth 1.5 percent of gross domestic product.

But leaders of the PASOK socialist party, the conservative New Democracy and the far-right LAOS party still have to reach agreement on several unresolved issues.

These include labor market reform and shoring up domestic banks. Greece needs the bailout money by mid-March to meet big debt repayments but tempers are rising in the EU over what it sees as Greek dithering on implementing reforms.

Greeks have been worn down by a deep recession, now in its fifth year, and wave after wave of austerity measures imposed under the first bailout.

($1 = 0.7621 euros)

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Writing by Deepa Babington and David Stamp; Editing by Michael Roddy and Elizabeth Piper)