Crisis-hit Greece takes European Union helm

ATHENS, Jan 01, 2014 (AFP) - Greece on Wednesday began a six-month stint as president of the European Union (EU), as it continues its own struggle against recession and social unrest.

Athens assumes the bloc's rotating presidency at a time of change, with elections in May set to usher in a new European parliament amid fears of gains by anti-EU parties.

Greece takes the reins of the EU "with a keen sense of its responsibility to its EU partners and all European citizens," said Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos.

The year ahead would be "a major turning point," predicted Mr Venizelos, as Greece battles to exit its crisis and the EU embarks on "the debate on the future of our Union" ahead of the 2014 elections.

Greece has scheduled 14 ministerial meetings during its turn at the helm and will then hand over the torch to Italy.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras will go to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Jan 16 to present his country's aims for the coming six months.

He is expected to focus on growth and jobs, the implementation of a historic banking union thrashed out by finance ministers at the end of 2013, as well as immigration and maritime policy.

The rotating presidency of the European Union - designed to share out responsibility among the bloc's members - has lost some of its importance with the creation in 2009 of a permanent head of the European Council, currently held by Belgian Herman van Rompuy.

Greece heads into the new year with some optimism following six long years of recession, with Mr Samaras predicting the crisis-hit economy would need no further aid after it exits its bailout programme in 2014.

But the situation remains delicate politically, with mr Samaras holding a wafer-thin majority in parliament and pending trials for leaders of the sinister far-right group Golden Dawn likely to grab the world's attention.