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Greece: General strike with a silver lining - even the taxman's walked out

Public services are being affected as strikers oppose another round of cuts

If you wanted to get a hip replacement, file for divorce or pay your taxes in Greece this week, you were out of luck as unions staged a series of strikes in key services to protest against a new round of painful cuts being hammered out to secure the next round of eurozone bail-out cash.

Politicians in the coalition government have been locked behind closed doors all week, first with inspectors from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, and then with each other as they try to scrape together the deep cuts needed to stop the country going bankrupt.

Most of the striking workers – from tax officers to university professors – oppose looming salary cuts which are included in the austerity package that is meant to save Greece at least €11.5bn (£9.2bn) over the next two years. More than half of the cuts will come from cutting wages, pensions and social benefits again, a finance ministry official confirmed. But Athens has yet to agree on the entirety of the austerity programme, which could threaten the release of a €31.5bn tranche the country needs to avoid debt default and stay in the euro.

"The negotiations are difficult," the Finance Minister, Yannis Stournaras, said this week, in reference to talks with representatives of the EU and IMF. "We're doing everything possible to minimise the social cost, especially for the lower income groups."

Government officials remained hopeful, however, that Greece could be close to agreeing the full spending cuts soon. Yesterday afternoon, Mr Stournaras met with the inspectors for the final time before they leave Athens today to consider their findings. The inspectors said they had held "productive discussions" and the government had made "good progress", adding that officials would return for further meetings in about a week.

The auditors' report on Greece was initially expected to be ready in time for a eurozone finance ministers' meeting on 8 October, but a Reuters report – later denied by Greek officials – suggested it could be pushed back until after the US presidential elections on 6 November to avoid anything that could "rock the global economy".

Some good news emerged yesterday from the finance ministry, which revealed that for the first time this year, Athens presented a budget surplus. But with 24.4 per cent of the country unemployed, experts warn that the succession of austerity measures have only compounded the country's deep recession, now in its fifth year.

With more than a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, the planned austerity measures revived public anger. Hospital doctors have been striking since Monday, leaving many hospitals running with skeleton staff. "Most of us continued to work; we can't just give up on our patients," said Alexandros Bachariou, an eye doctor at one of Greece's largest hospitals, Evangelismos. But he lamented the conditions medical staff had to work under. "We're seriously understaffed: retiring colleagues aren't being replaced while the number of patients using public hospitals has soared because of the crisis," he said.

Tax officers yesterday joined prosecutors and judges who continued their week long work stoppages. Vassiliki Thanou, the president of the Union of Judges and Prosecutors, said her colleagues had previously agreed to salary reductions to help the country battle its financial crisis. "But the new planned cuts mean our wages could drop by up to 60 per cent and that means we're stripped of a dignified living." On Thursday, various small protests – by tourist operators and metal workers – and a strike by metro and tram drivers led to lines of snarled traffic in the capital.

Authorities ramped up security measures around the office of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Most of the gates of an adjacent public park were locked suddenly, trapping tourists inside, while scuffles broke out between police guarding the building and protesting firemen.

The protracted negotiations over the cuts have added pressure on Mr Samaras' fragile coalition government. The ruling party's popularity has dropped while MPs have threatened to vote against the cuts. Fotis Kouvelis, the leader of the Democratic Left party, urged representatives to "stop attacking the Greek society" and spoke against further cuts to pensions and social benefits. Unions have called for a general strike next week.

'Absolute need' to preserve the eurozone

The leaders of Italy and Greece are insisting on the "absolute need" to preserve the eurozone.

Italy's Prime Minister, Mario Monti, met his Greek counterpart, Antonis Samaras, on the sidelines of a political conference in Rome yesterday, also attended by the Irish and Spanish premiers.

A statement from Mr Monti's office said the two leaders reiterated their conviction of "the absolute need to safeguard the integrity of the eurozone, stabilise markets and proceed in the process of European integration".

While Ireland and Greece have both applied for bailouts to prop up their economies, Italy and Spain have not, despite high levels of government debt. Spain in particular is under pressure to apply for funds beyond the €100bn loan it has procured for its banks.