By Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece on Thursday offered a concession to its international lenders by pushing ahead with the sale of its biggest port, Piraeus.
Greece has asked three firms to submit bids for a majority stake in the port, a senior privatization official told Reuters, unblocking a major sale of a public asset as the EU and the IMF demand economic reforms from Athens.
Despite the conciliatory move, Germany’s Bundesbank showed no sign of easing off on its hardline stance toward Greece.
Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann criticised weekly top-ups of emergency funding to Greek banks, saying in a German newspaper interview that this broke a taboo against the European central banking system financing governments.
Greek banks have been drawing emergency liquidity assistance from the country’s central bank, a funding lifeline provided in exchange for collateral. Greek banks have been using the money to buy short-term government debt, helping to keep the country’s finances afloat.
The ECB has been raising the cap on the funds weekly, most recently on Tuesday by 1.1. billion euros to 80 billion euros, but Weidmann questioned this.
“Given the ban on monetary financing of states, I don’t think it’s OK that banks which don’t have access to the markets are being granted loans which then finance the bonds of their government, which doesn’t have access to the markets itself,”
Weidmann told Handelsblatt.
In an apparent attempt to present a more united front as it struggles to reach a deal with its international lenders, Greece’s leftist government sought to play down tensions with its own central bank.
Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras’s relations with the government have come under scrutiny after a newspaper accused him of undermining Greece’s talks with creditors, and government officials openly criticised him on other issues.
“The Greek government hasn’t opened any issue with Mr. Stournaras. If issues have surfaced, it wasn’t due to the government’s initiative,” government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis told reporters. “The issue of the central bank’s independence, which is fully respected by the Greek government, is above all an issue for the central bank to defend.”
Any deterioration in relations between the two sides could worsen already difficult talks between Greece and its European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders, who have been angered by what they say is the Greek government’s refusal to play by European rules.
The tensions come against the backdrop of limited progress in talks with lenders on a cash-for-reforms deal as Greece quickly runs out of cash. Athens emptied an IMF reserves account to pay the IMF this week, but now faces wage and pension payments later in the month and fresh debt payments in June.
“The Greek economy, and Greek people, are paying from their own flesh and as they continue to pay … this hurts any prospect of growth,” Sakellaridis said, adding Athens would try its best to meet obligations but needed more cash.
He said Greece is still aiming for a deal with lenders by end-May, and that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would step up contacts with EU leaders ahead of a summit in Riga next week.
Greece also said it could ask for an emergency euro zone finance ministers’ meeting after the summit in Riga.
Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis suggested a debt swap to push back debt payments to the European Central Bank would help the country but that such an idea was out of the question because it filled ECB chief Mario Draghi’s “soul with fear”.
WEEK OF CRITICISM
Stournaras was appointed central bank governor last June.
Before that he was finance minister in the conservative-led government, where he spearheaded Greece’s return to the bond markets in April 2014 after a four-year exclusion. But he also drew criticism from anti-bailout groups for implementing harsh spending cuts demanded by the EU and IMF.
Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis this week was quoted as saying Stournaras’s role in winding down ATEbank – a small lender that gave loans to farmers – in 2012 was a scandal.
“The criticism by Mr. Lafazanis toward Mr. Stournaras refers to the period that he was finance minister,” Sakellaridis said. “Obviously, today he is a central banker but there can be and should be political criticism over the period that he was a finance minister.”
Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis this week also questioned why Stournaras – who suggested Greece tap an IMF holding account to repay 750 million euros to the fund this week and avoid default – had not mentioned the funds earlier.
The latest tensions flared when the Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper reported over the weekend that the Bank of Greece, in an email to journalists, leaked economic data including deposit outflows during Tsipras’s first 100 days in power.
Hours later, officials at Tsipras’s office called on the central bank to deny the report, saying the report, if true, “constitutes a blow to the central bank’s independence.”
The Bank of Greece has denied that either Stournaras’s office or the bank’s press office sent such an e-mail.
(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Deepa Babington and Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Giles Elgood)