VALLETTA: Eurozone finance ministers raced to reach a reform deal with Greece on Friday in an effort to release billions in bailout cash and avert further damage to a stalling Greek economy.
Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem said there was a positive mood and would report the latest progress to the ministers at talks in Valletta, the capital of Malta, which holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.
“The good thing is that we have achieved results but I’m going to tell the ministers first,” Dijsselbloem, who is also Dutch finance minister, told reporters as he arrived for the talks.
Dijsselbloem has spent the week shuttling between Brussels and Berlin ahead of Friday’s talks in hopes of finding a compromise in a fight that has dragged on for months.
The impasse has held up the latest installment of Greece’s 86-billion-euro ($92-billion) bailout, agreed in 2015 with the 19 countries that use the single currency.
Heavily indebted Athens and its EU and IMF creditors have been deadlocked over reforms since October amid disagreements on debt relief and budget targets for Greece.
The deal is needed in order to stop the country from defaulting on its creditors this summer when Athens owes about seven billion euros in debt repayments.
“Today is an important day, the moment when everyone has to commit to the details of a good agreement,” EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said in Malta.
“Greece needs this; we must end the uncertainties that are scaring investors,” he added.
Despite projections for growth, the Greek economy actually stalled in 2016 and recent data shows that after some stabilization, it has begun to falter again amid uncertainty triggered by the row.
“We are in the final meters of this difficult road,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Thursday.
“We are determined… not to let anyone play games against the Greek economy,” he added.
Without a deal in Malta, Tsipras said he would ask for a eurozone leaders summit later this month, making his case in a phone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader.
Talks have stalled due to a refusal by Athens to accept any reform commitments beyond the term of its current bailout that is due to end in 2018.
But media reports said the Greek government was now prepared to accept to reduce pensions in 2019 and increase taxes in 2020 despite widespread public opposition.
Also pressing matters is a desire by eurozone ministers to present a united front to the IMF later this month at the fund’s annual meetings in Washington.
The Europeans have been at loggerheads with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over the Washington-based lender’s demands for more realistic budget targets and firm commitments to reduce Greece’s mountain of debt.
An agreement among eurozone ministers would go a long way towards getting the IMF on board as a financial partner in the bailout, a major demand of Germany, Greece’s biggest lender.
The IMF has so far stayed out of the current rescue, Greece’s third since 2010.
“There has been progress in discussions, but important issues remain outstanding,” IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Also weighing on the talks is a row over controversial remarks made by Dijsselbloem, who is also Dutch finance minister.
Dijsselbloem suggested in an interview in a German newspaper that southern European countries had been reckless spendthrifts, blowing their money on “drinks and women.”
Southern Europeans reacted strongly, with Portugal’s prime minister and former Italian premier Matteo Renzi calling on Dijsselbloem to step down.
“Certainly not,” answered Dijsselbloem when asked if he would resign.