ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek customs officials and finance ministry employees walked off the job Tuesday to protest government austerity measures designed to pull the country out of a debt crisis that has shaken the entire eurozone.
The three-day customs strike will affect imports and exports, with a skeleton staff processing only certain items such as perishable goods and pharmaceuticals, and could affect the supply of fuel.
Finance Ministry employees — including those at Greece’s much-maligned statistics service, which was accused by the EU of helping cause the crisis by faking the country’s economic statistics — walked off the job for four days.
The strikes came as European finance ministers in Brussels warned Athens that it would have to prepare even tougher budget cuts if its current austerity program can’t reduce its massive deficit from 12.7 per cent of economic output to 8.7 per cent this year. Athens has until March 16 to report back to the EU on its progress.
The measures that Prime Minister George Papandreou’s new Socialist government has announced so far have already caused a backlash from trade unions. The measures include higher taxes, increases in the average retirement age, a salary and hiring freeze for the public sector and cuts in stipends and bonuses.
Last week, civil servants walked off the job for 24 hours — although protest marches in Athens and Greece’s second largest city of Thessaloniki were poorly attended, indicating that many people accept the government’s position that harsh measures need to be taken.
“It’s going to be mandatory. What can we do, we all must help. That’s my opinion,” said retired farmer Giorgos Kornelakis. “Greece is in danger. … We are all in danger. We must save money.”
The country’s two largest umbrella unions have declared a general strike for next Wednesday, while fuel truck drivers are also threatening to strike this week.
Police said a bomb exploded at the offices of American financial services firm JPMorgan Chase & Co., causing no injuries. The blast occurred early evening Tuesday in an upscale area of central Athens, following a warning telephone call to an Athens newspaper.
The extent of the damage was not immediately clear.
Eurozone leaders pledged last week to help Greece “if needed to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as a whole” — but did not say how any bailout would work.
On Monday, they asked Greece to ready new spending cuts, increase sales and energy taxes and impose new levies on luxury goods, including cars — and the wider EU is expected to back that call on Tuesday.
EU countries that use the common euro currency have pledged to help Greece if it can’t repay its debts — but want Athens to make big spending cuts first. They are taking action because fears of a Greek default could spark a wider European debt crisis, threatening governments’ ability to borrow money.
If Greece shows it isn’t on course to meet its targets, the finance ministers of the other 15 eurozone countries would vote on whether tougher action is needed and would impose extra measures on Greece, said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who led Monday’s talks in Brussels.
The details of new spending cuts would be agreed with the European Commission and would focus on raising value-added tax and energy taxes, setting new excise duties on luxury goods — including private cars — and new cuts to capital expenditure.
Market worries of a default have hiked the cost of Greek government borrowing in recent months and caused the euro to slide to a near nine-month low against the dollar.
Spreads on Greek government bonds over the equivalent German bond — a key indicator of market confidence — widened Tuesday to 324.2 basis points, while the Athens Stock Exchange general index was 3.4 per cent down in early afternoon trading.
Greece has not asked for a bailout and insists it doesn’t need one. But eurozone nations have said they would step in “to safeguard the stability of the eurozone” if that became necessary, although no details of how that would be done have been made public.
On Monday, Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou called on eurozone nations to detail how a potential bailout would work, saying this would “stop markets from attacking Greece.”