Greek farmers end road blockades over pension reform ahead of bailout talks

1 March 2016
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Greek farmers started withdrawing from road blockades on Monday after getting assurances from Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that his government would try to get a better pension deal for them with the country’s foreign creditors.

The pension reform is a key term of Greece’s third bailout and one of the main sticking points in talks with European Union and International Monetary Fund inspectors assessing its progress on fiscal targets and structural reforms.

“Today we are officially ending the road blockades,” Yannis Tourtouras, the head of farmers blockading roads near the border crossing with Bulgaria, told Reuters. “We are tired and we don’t want to burden the rest of the country’s residents.”

Farmers have been blockading border crossings and national roads intermittently for over a month demanding that the left-led government takes back a pension reform plan which triples their social security contributions.

Last week, Tsipras sought to soften the deal by offering tax breaks and a longer, five-year transition period for the higher contributions. But the concessions need to be discussed with the international lenders.

Tourtouras said farmers would continue with city rallies and tax office occupations, awaiting the final details.

“We’ll be outside parliament, with our tractors, if they submit a bill which does not satisfy our demands,” he said.

Tsipras, who has a three-seat parliamentary majority and has seen his popularity sliding, wants to conclude the bailout review swiftly and start talks on debt relief to convince Greeks that their sacrifices are paying off and lure back investors.

Deputy euro zone finance ministers were scheduled to discuss Greece’s progress later on Monday.

EU inspectors were likely to return to Athens for the review as early as this week, but the International Monetary Fund – which projects a wider than initially estimated fiscal gap by 2018 and believes a debt relief is necessary – “was not as cooperative”, a government official said.

Athens has promised to trim its annual pension spending by 1.8 billion euros this year, or 1 percent of economic output.

“No amount of pension reforms will make Greece’s debt sustainable without debt relief, and no amount of debt relief will make Greece’s pension system sustainable without pension reforms,” IMF’s Poul Thomsen said earlier this month.

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