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Greek Presidency

Strasbourg/Brussels, 15/01/2014 (Agence Europe) – On Wednesday 15 January, Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras presented the priorities of the Greek Presidency of the Council of the EU to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, giving a very pro-European speech ahead of the European elections in May.

“The Greek Presidency will be closer to the citizens and will address the big issues. We need a better Europe and more Europe. The issue is not Europe or not, but what Europe. This merits an in-depth debate”, he said. Samaras was himself an MEP from 2004-2007. “During the elections, the citizens shouldn't be voting with a bitter taste of the crisis in their mouth, but with the feeling that the crisis has been overcome and that Europe has come out of it bigger and better”. He added that the EU is not a luxury but a vital necessity because of the challenges to be met in Europe and the world. “We can better respond to these challenges if we are united”, he added.

“How can we convince our citizens that they must fight for Europe?”, asked chair of the S&D Group, Hannes Swoboda (Austria), who said that, if the Greek Presidency makes a contribution to social Europe, “we will support you”.

“The top priority is democratic legitimacy, and the fact that the EU is accountable”, said Samaras, stressing that solidarity is needed between the states and the people.

Solidarity was also highlighted by the MEPs. “European solidarity must come into play. This comes through more social and tax harmonisation at European level”, said Joseph Daul (France) on behalf of the EPP.

The eurosceptics spoke about the situation in Greece in order to criticise the EU. In the view of Nicole Sinclair (non-attached, UK), “it's amusing that Greece is taking on the presidency now. It's a symbol of Europe's failure”. “The federalist dream has become a nightmare. We didn't think about the cost of the single currency, and it's the people who are now paying the price for it. It's important to learn from the mistakes. We need to go into reverse on the project for unification – that's the direction that the EU must take”, said Martin Callanan (ECR, UK). In the view of Nigel Farage (EFD, UK), “Greece is controlled by foreign powers. You've sold your democracy and you can't admit that it was a mistake”. In his reply, Samaras stressed that it was “not necessary to comment on observations coming from those who defend an isolationist vision of Europe”.

Hard progress for banking union. Samaras again recalled the priorities of his Presidency – employment, growth and cohesion, strengthening EMU (economic and monetary union), issues of mobility and immigration, and maritime policy. He also highlighted enlargement policy and the role of the EU in the world.

The Presidency will have much to do as its time for work will realistically be just three and a half months due to the European elections.

During the debate, the leaders of the main political groups warned that they will not accept the Council's compromise on the banking resolution mechanism as it currently stands – far from it. European Parliament President Martin Schulz believed that an agreement was currently impossible on the mechanism for bank resolution within the area of future banking union. The difficulty comes from the general approach agreed by the Council in December, which provides in particular for an intergovernmental agreement to settle certain details. This is one of the points which angers MEPs. “We expect good sense from the Council. We will find a solution together. It will be a Community solution – or otherwise there will be no solution found at all”, said Daul. “The proposal on banking union is not acceptable in our eyes. The Parliament will not accept banking union as currently planned. The process is too complicated”, said Swoboda. The chair of the ALDE Group, Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium), stated that a European mechanism is not based on national mechanisms. “We don't want national patchwork but a Community approach”, he said.

“The negotiations are difficult. Sometimes we take part in a head-on collision between the European Parliament and Council”, said Samaras, adding that it was necessary to overcome the differences so that Europe might really be equipped with banking union. “These negotiations will be a challenge. They will be very difficult”, he agreed. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso recalled that his institution would have preferred an approach based on the Community framework and that the Commission was going to work for the intergovernmental dimension to be kept to the absolute minimum of what was politically necessary.

A timely Presidency. The Greek Presidency is well-timed and coincides with the return to growth that Greece announced. Samaras did not hide his pride at the progress that Greece has made, basing his speech at the start of the Presidency on Greece's economic watershed. “Today we stand tall. We are proud. There is a return to normality. We are proof that Europe works”, he said. “Greece is coming out of its crisis” bigger, even if “much remains to be done”, he said, speaking in particular about the issue of social cohesion, which has been weakened by years of austerity. In behalf of the Greens/EFA Group, Rebecca Harms (Germany) stated that the growth figures were “ridiculous” compared with the unemployment rate – which was a concern also mentioned by Daul. Schulz praised the “immeasurable sacrifices” of the Greek people – “these must not be in vain”. Swoboda disapproved of the fact that Greece must repay its debt “so quickly”. Gabi Zimmer (GUE, Germany) stressed the “humanitarian crisis” in Greece, criticising the unemployment, the poverty and the violation of fundamental rights, as well as the cuts in social services. She called for Man and his survival to be put before the repayment of debts. (CG/EL/transl.fl)