Greece scrambles to adopt cuts program

Greece scrambled Wednesday to adopt a batch of emergency laws that will further cut incomes and government spending, while revising deficit estimates higher, a day after securing a new bailout and debt relief deal designed to stave off bankruptcy.

Fitch downgrades country further into junk territory

Riot policemen guard the Greek parliament as a flare thrown by protesters burns during a protest in Athens Wednesday. Police said some 6,500 people took part in two separate peaceful protests outside Parliament, called by the country's two main unions and a Communist union. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

Greece scrambled Wednesday to adopt a batch of emergency laws that will further cut incomes and government spending, while revising deficit estimates higher, a day after securing a new bailout and debt relief deal designed to stave off bankruptcy.   

The new austerity measures demanded by creditors in return for the rescue loans follow two years of deepening misery, with the Greek economy in freefall and unemployment at a record high. Angry unions have called two separate protest rallies outside Parliament in the afternoon.   

On Tuesday, the 17-country eurozone approved Greece's second financial lifeline in less than two years, worth €130 billion ($172 billion Cdn), and agreed to impose a €107 billion ($141 billion) debt writedown on banks and other private holders of Greek bonds.   

In response to the writedown agreement, Fitch downgraded Greece's credit rating further into junk status, from 'CCC' to 'C.'    The agency said a Greek default "is highly likely in the near term" and added that it would briefly consider placing Greece in "restrictive default" once the bond swap is completed — a warning it first issued in June.   

Athens argues that the default rating would be a simple technicality, as the twin deals struck on Tuesday will allow the country to repay bonds maturing next month — thus avoiding a disorderly default — and remain in the common European currency it joined in 2001.   

Even then, the price of salvation for ordinary Greeks is only just starting to sink in.   

Legislation tabled in Parliament late Tuesday outlines a total €3.2 billion ($4.2 billion) in extra budget cuts this year agreed by the Cabinet last week.

Health spending to be cut   

The measures include nearly €400 million ($528 million) in cuts to already depleted pensions. Health and education spending will be reduced by more than €170 million, subsidies to the state health care system will be cut by €500 million, and health care spending on medicine will fall by €570 million.

Some C400 million will be lopped off defence spending — three quarters of which will come from purchases.   

The draft law also drastically revises the 2012 budget, changing the deficit target to 6.7 per cent of gross domestic product from an initial forecast of 5.4 per cent.

Even worse, plans for a modest primary surplus — which excludes debt servicing costs — have been scrapped and Greece will instead post a primary deficit of nearly €500 million, or 0.2 per cent of GDP.    Parliament is expected to vote on the cuts and budgetary revisions early next week.   

On Wednesday, debate will start at committee level on a separate draft law on adopting the private debt writedown. Parliament's plenary session will vote on the draft law Thursday.   

Both pieces of legislation are expected to be approved, as the interim governing coalition headed by technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos controls 193 of the House's 300 seats. But earlier this month the two coalition partners — the majority Socialists and the conservatives — were forced to expel a total 43 deputies who rebelled against new austerity cuts.   

It remains uncertain whether even the combination of new bailout and writedown will be enough to save Greece, whose economy is in a fifth year of recession and could continue to shrink as the cutbacks cripple consumer spending and investment.

Greece needs a Marshall Plan   

Werner Hoyer, the new president of the European Investment Bank, told Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper that "Greece now needs, alongside the unavoidable austerity program, a Marshall plan too " — a reference to the U.S. aid plan that rescued an impoverished Europe after World War II.   

Hoyer suggested that Greeks working in the European Commission and other EU bodies should be motivated to return home and help out, to avoid the impression that Greece "is under tutelage and directed by others."   

But he said the structural reforms Greece needed could take up to two decades.   

Angry Greek unions have called a protest rally against the new belt-tightening for 4:00 p.m. outside Parliament. Communist supporters will hold a separate march an hour later, while other protesters are planning a motorcycle rally.

Previous protests have turned violent, and rioters burnt and looted dozens of shops in central Athens during a rally on Feb. 12.

Papademos, who is unelected, has a sole mandate to see through the twin bailout and debt relief deal, and is expected to step down by early April ahead of national elections.

Polls show that conservative New Democracy would likely come first, but without a large enough majority to govern alone.