EU hopes Greece will drop objections to unity declaration

Athens accused of trying to 'blackmail' bloc to win leverage in international debt talks

BRUSSELS • European Union officials have said they are hopeful that Greece will drop its 11th-hour objections to a declaration marking the bloc's 60th birthday, sparing it from a major embarrassment as it struggles for unity despite the looming departure of Britain.

The leaders of the EU's 27 remaining states will mark the anniversary at a gathering in Rome today, four days before Britain is due to give formal notice of its exit.

Greece has threatened not to sign the Rome declaration setting out the bloc's vision of its future. It wants the text to make a clearer commitment to protecting workers' rights - an issue on which it is at loggerheads with international lenders which want it to adopt more reforms in return for new loans.

"The negotiations on the draft Rome Declaration have ended as the text was finalised by the EU27," an EU source said. "Only Greece has a general reservation on the text."

The source added that Mr Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, had spoken to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the matter. "This leaves us relatively confident that it will be possible for Tsipras to sign the Rome Declaration (today)."

A senior EU diplomat said tweaks to the draft declaration, highlighting the need to fight unemployment, should satisfy Athens: "For Tsipras to underline his concerns about employment, one can understand. But I don't think in the end this will hold up the text."

  • Key polls this weekend

  • German state polls a test for Merkel

    BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party faces a first election-year test against resurgent left-wing challengers when voters go to the polls tomorrow in the tiny region of Saarland.

    Although the state is home to just one million people, the election is seen as a first litmus test in the battle between Dr Merkel and the Social Democrats (SPD) under their new leader Martin Schulz.

    The centre-left SPD - having long languished in the shadow of the "Queen of Europe" - has been gripped by almost giddy optimism under Mr Schulz, 61, the plain-spoken former head of the European Parliament. It has gained around 10 points nationally since he took over in January with a social justice platform and a vow to end Dr Merkel's almost 12-year reign in the September general election.

    One of Germany's smallest states, Saarland is - like federal Germany - governed by a "grand coalition" of Dr Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the SPD. But polls suggest a left-leaning "red-red-green" alliance of the SPD, the far-left Linke party and the Greens - or even a "red-red" coalition if the Greens fail to win enough votes - could emerge after the state votes. And while obstacles remain, the parties seem to be warming to the idea of cooperating.

    REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


    Bulgaria's election will be close race

    SOFIA • Bulgaria's snap parliamentary election tomorrow is expected to be a close race between the Socialists, seen as closer to Russia, and the centre-right. A new grouping of nationalist "patriots" is tipped to come third.

    This will be the third election in four years for the European Union's poorest country. According to a survey published on Thursday, Bulgaria's centre-right GERB party has slightly increased its lead over the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and is predicted to win 31.7 per cent of the vote against the Socialists' 29.1 per cent.

    Neither of the main contenders is expected to win an outright majority, meaning Bulgaria will most likely have another fragile and diverse coalition government that will struggle to push ahead with reforms to spur growth and combat corruption.

    GERB is led by former firefighter Boiko Borisov, 57. Like most Bulgarians, he has a soft spot for Russia, giving President Vladimir Putin a puppy in 2010, but he toes the EU line on sanctions.

    Ms Kornelia Ninova, 48, became BSP's first female leader last year. She says she will veto a renewal of EU sanctions on Russia. She has also criticised the EU, saying Bulgaria did not want to turn into a second-class member.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

Another EU diplomat said any attempt by Athens to win leverage on the international debt talks by holding off in Rome should not succeed, adding: "We won't be blackmailed by one member state which is linking one EU issue with a totally different one."

The person added that if Greece did not come on board by today, the document - designed to emphasise unity and solidarity - could be adopted in Mr Tusk's name rather than as a joint statement by 27 EU states and Brussels institutions.

That would, however, be another symbolic setback for the bloc, which is mired in internal divisions and weakened by Britain's decision to leave.

Besides Greece, Poland also indicated on Thursday that it might refuse to endorse the declaration, although diplomats have played down the threat.

Warsaw is particularly opposed to a "multi-speed Europe" - an idea promoted by Germany, France and Brussels, among others, to help improve decision-making in the post- Brexit EU. This would allow countries keen on deepening cooperation in specific areas to press ahead without waiting for the whole bloc.

Poland and some other eastern EU countries fear they could end up as second-class members, increasingly left behind by wealthier western European nations.

"If the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland, we will not accept the declaration," Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said.

But the sole sentence in the Rome declaration about this concept has been softened to accommodate Warsaw's concerns, meaning that any last-minute veto is highly unlikely.

Diplomats in Brussels said Warsaw had already approved the draft text earlier this week, and that Ms Szydlo's comments appeared designed for domestic consumption and to allow her to claim a diplomatic victory at the summit.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'EU hopes Greece will drop objections to unity declaration'. Print Edition | Subscribe