* EU officials say package must be agreed by mid-month
* Party official blames missing paperwork for fresh delay
* Merkel promises not to force Greece out of the euro zone
* Dutch PM says euro zone can live with Greek exit
* Trade unions stage 24-hour strike
By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
ATHENS, Feb 7 Greek political parties
delayed yet again on Tuesday making the tough choice of
accepting painful reforms in return for a new international
bailout to avoid a chaotic default, seemingly deaf to EU
warnings that the euro zone can live without Athens.
With a series of deadlines come and gone, leaders of the
three parties in the coalition of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos
postponed what was supposed to be a crunch meeting until
On a day when protesters burned a German flag in Athens,
Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to ease growing tension by
promising she would not try to force Greece out of the euro. But
the Dutch prime minister said the currency bloc could take a
Greek exit in its stride.
One party official blamed Tuesday's delay, which is likely
to enrage euro zone leaders desperate to tie up the 130 billion
euro rescue after months of argument, on missing paperwork - the
same reason given when the meeting was postponed from Monday to
"The reason is that the political leaders will not have the
time to assess the measures in the bailout," said the party
official, who declined to be named.
The heads of the conservative, socialist and far-right
parties had yet to receive the draft agreement with the European
Union and IMF only half an hour before the 1900 GMT scheduled
start of the meeting on Tuesday.
"We can't say a plain yes or no unless we have assurances
from the relevant authorities of the state that these actions
are constitutional and will lead the country out of the crisis,"
far-right LAOS leader George Karatzaferis said. "There is time.
When it comes to future of the country, we will find the time."
Party leaders have hesitated to accept the tough terms of
the deal, which are certain to mean a big drop in living
standards for many Greeks.
Adding to the pressure, unions staged a 24-hour strike on
Tuesday, and protesters tussled with police outside parliament,
chanting: "No to mediaeval labour conditions!"
Deadlines are rapidly losing any significance as one after
another passes. Last weekend, Finance Minister Evangelos
Venizelos said a deal had to be done by Sunday. Then the parties
sailed past a Monday deadline to give their response to the EU,
promising that Tuesday would be the day for decisions.
A CHALLENGE TO MERKEL
Such dithering is a challenge to the authority of Merkel,
whose government is a major funder of Greek bailouts. She said
on Monday that "time is of the essence" and expressed
bewilderment about what the repeated delays could achieve.
With Greek resentment increasingly focusing on Germany,
Merkel tried to calm the atmosphere on Tuesday, warning that
forcing Greece to abandon the euro would have "unforeseeable
"I will have no part in forcing Greece out of the euro," she
said in response to a question from a Greek student at a meeting
with young people in a Berlin museum.
Euro zone countries cannot be forced out of the currency
bloc by their peers. But some policymakers in the bloc are
starting to say in public what they have been saying in private;
that if Athens doesn't accept the terms, they might not do much
to prevent Greece falling out of its own accord.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the euro zone could
live without Greece if it didn't keep its side of the bargain.
"We are currently so strong in the rest of the euro zone, in
the countries who have the euro, that we can handle an exit of
Greece - a Greece which runs into serious trouble," Rutte told
Dutch public broadcaster NOS.
"They really have to implement all the measures they have
promised to take. If that doesn't happen we can't help them."
Such comments will hurt Greeks, who have a deep fear of
being cast adrift from the euro zone and left with a new
national drachma currency which would probably dive in value.
Papademos, a technocrat parachuted in to lead the Greek
government late last year, has been trying to persuade the party
leaders to accept the EU/IMF conditions.
With elections likely in April, the party political leaders
- who Europe insists must all sign up to the austerity programme
- face an obvious incentive not to heap more misery on their
voters. But if they do not, an unruly default looms.
Euro zone officials say the full package must be agreed with
Greece and approved by the euro zone, European Central Bank and
International Monetary Fund before Feb. 15.
This is to allow time for complex legal procedures involved
in a bond swap deal - under which the value of private
investors' holdings of Greek debt will be cut radically in value
- so Athens can get rescue funds before March 20 when it has to
meet heavy debt repayments or suffer a chaotic default.
After days of negotiations, officials said
sticking points on cutting the minimum wage and scrapping
holiday bonuses appeared to have been largely resolved but the
level of cuts on top-up, supplementary pensions still remained.
"DON'T BOW YOUR HEADS!"
The funds come at the price of deeply unpopular wage and
spending cuts that have infuriated ordinary Greeks struggling
through the country's fifth year of recession.
Tuesday's strike closed tourist sites and the country's
biggest port, and disrupted public transport. Scuffles broke out
as protesting strikers tried to climb steps leading to
parliament, chanting: "Don't bow your heads, show resistance!"
Riot police rushed to block their way as some protesters
sprayed red paint on the steps and a wall next to the tomb of
the unknown soldier, which commemorates the fallen in past Greek
campaigns. Other protesters burned a German and a Nazi flag.
Ceremonial guards in traditional Greek kilts, a top Athens
tourist attraction, were evacuated and the protesters were
pushed back on to the adjacent Syntagma Square, where riot
police created a defensive line.
However, the turnout was noticeably smaller than at other
protests in recent months, with heavy showers dampening the
One civil servant watching the protests expressed a weary
anger at the austerity imposed already, which has almost halved
her monthly pay to 900 euros, and higher taxes.
"I wouldn't mind paying for the next two years if I knew
austerity would take us somewhere," said 32-year-old Leto
Papadopoulou. "But this crisis seems endless. In 10 years from
now, I will be a lost case for the labour market."