Yorgos Karahalis / AP

Eurozone ministers demand more from Greece for debt bailout

There is consensus among ministers that Athens must take further steps to convince them it would honor new debts

Skeptical eurozone finance ministers demanded on Saturday that Greece go beyond painful austerity measures accepted by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras if he wants them to open negotiations on a third bailout for his bankrupt country to keep it in the euro.

Ministers lined up to vent their anger at Tsipras on arrival at their emergency weekend meeting on Greece's acute debt crisis, with Athens staring into an economic abyss when financial markets reopen on Monday unless it wins fresh aid.

EU officials forecast a deal would be reached by the end of the weekend to keep Greece afloat, but two sources said there was consensus among the other 18 ministers that the leftist government in Athens must take further steps to convince them it would honor any new debts.

Tsipras won parliamentary backing early on Saturday for a tough reform package that largely mirrored measures previously demanded by its international creditors but rejected by Greek voters at his behest in a referendum last Sunday.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, finance minister of its biggest creditor Germany and a stickler for the EU's fiscal rules, said negotiations would be "exceptionally difficult."

Emerging optimism about Greece had been "destroyed in an incredible way in the last few months" since Tsipras won power, Schaeuble said.

A German newspaper reported that his ministry was suggesting that Greece either improve its proposals quickly and transfer state assets worth 50 billion euros into a fund to pay down debt, or take a five-year "time-out" from the eurozone.

The German Finance Ministry declined to comment on the report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. But several officials said no one raised the possibility of a Greek euro exit in the meeting.

Making more concessions, though, will be tough on the Greek government since the shadow of severe dissent from governing lawmakers was already hanging over them. The plans contain tax hikes and deep spending cuts, including on pensions, that the six-month-old left-wing government had so far resisted.

Without a deal Greece, already desperately low on cash, its banks shut for the past two weeks and its population restricted on cash withdrawals, risks crashing out of the euro. It would be the first country to do so, and the consequences for the country and global markets would be unpredictable.

The new bailout talks did not satisfy some people suffering from the shutdown of bank services and the uncertainty of their leaders' next moves. In Athens on Friday, Clothing shops and cafes were open, but customers were in short supply.

Butcher Stathis Nikolados works 12 hours a day. He voted no in last weekend’s referendum, but he’s willing to give the government’s latest proposals a chance — provided creditors treat the Greek people with dignity.

“We are not beggars,” he said. “It’s not a matter of food. It’s not a matter of survival. We are human beings.”

"The new measures are suffocating," said Irini Skordara, a 79-year-old pensioner, one of dozens of pensioners lining up outside a bank to get their pension payments. "Better we live poor than to plunge into chaos."

Some Greeks said they were furious with the proposed reforms, which would include tax hikes and diminished pensions. 

"If this is Europe, then we don't want this Europe," Aristidis Dimoupulos, a marketing professor in Athens, told the Associated Press. "If this is the eurozone, we don't care if we go out or in. If in this life we'll be slaves, it's better to be dead."

A majority of Greeks agree that the country must remain in the euro. According to a poll published in Parapolitika newspaper on Friday, 84 percent of Greeks surveyed said they want to keep the currency; just 12 percent favored a return to the drachma.

Still, a majority said they oppose the austerity measures that Tsipras and his party hope will garner a deal. Of those polled, 55 percent said it was the right choice to vote "no" in last week's referendum on whether Athens should accept austerity conditions for bailout funds.

The austerity measures Tsipras' government is proposing are so far from his radical left Syriza party's policies that he suffered severe dissent in a late-night parliamentary debate that culminated in an early vote Saturday.

Among the dissenters on the vote were two of Tsipras's ministers — Panagiotis Lafazanis who holds the energy portfolio and Dimitris Stratoulis who holds the social security portfolio, and prominent party member and Parliament Speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou.

"I don't support an austerity program of neoliberal deregulation and privatizations which ... would prolong the vicious circle of recession, poverty and misery," Lafazanis said in a statement.

All opposition parties except the Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn and the Communist Party voted in favor.

Speaking earlier in the debate that began just before midnight Friday, Tsipras acknowledged the reforms his government has proposed were harsh and include measures far from his party's election pledges, but insisted they were Greece's best chance to emerge from its financial crisis.

Tsipras said his government had made mistakes during his six-month tenure but said he had negotiated as hard as he could.

"There is no doubt that for six months now we've been in a war," he said. "Now I have the feeling we've reached the ... line. From here on there is a minefield, and I don't have the right to dismiss this or hide it from the Greek people," he said.

The proposed measures are certain to inflict more pain on a Greek public, which just days ago voted overwhelmingly against a similar plan. But if approved by Greece's international creditors, the deal would also provide longer-term financial support for a nation that has endured six years of recession, and address the country's debt which the government has long argued is unsustainable.

If approved, Greece would get a three-year loan package worth nearly $60 billion as well as some form of debt relief. The country has relied on bailout funding since losing access to financing from bond markets in 2010.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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