German MPs unblock Greek aid in parliament vote

BERLIN (AFP) - German lawmakers approved Greece's hard-won bailout extension Friday in a move the finance minister called "not easy" but necessary, removing the last hurdle to keep crucial international aid flowing to Athens.

Despite scepticism in Europe's top economy, the four-month reprieve for Greece won overwhelming backing as expected in the lower house of parliament where Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right coalition commands a crushing majority.

In the ballot 542 MPs voted in favour while 32 were against and 13 abstained.

Germany's deeply pro-European Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had vigorously urged MPs to approve the breathing space for debt-wracked Greece, stressing Athens must also live up to its promises.

"I'd like to ask parliament, each lawmaker, not to reject the request by the finance ministry, which wasn't easy for me either, because this would do great harm to our people and our future," Schaeuble told parliament.

Schaeuble, who has traded barbs with Athens in recent weeks, said that the peoples of Europe were a "community" based on solidarity where those currently better off help those in difficulty.

"We, and especially Germany, will have a good future in the 21st century only if European integration remains successful and if we stand united in Europe," he said.

He sought to reassure MPs that the extension of the 240-billion-euro (S$366-billion) bailout was not about "new billions" for Greece, or changing the terms of the programme, but rather about "granting more time to successfully conclude" the rescue plan adopted for Athens in 2012.

"The basis for the request I have put to the German parliament is the promise by the Greek government to meet the conditions of the programme, without reservations and without exceptions," he added.


To secure the breathing space, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's new hard-left government has published a list of proposed reforms focused on tackling tax evasion and corruption and building greater government efficiencies, to improve public finances.

While dealing with the demands of international creditors, the government is also seeking to follow through on the anti-austerity promises that swept it to power.

In Athens Thursday, a small anti-capitalist party rallied against the latest agreement. The protest also drew some black-clad anarchists, and several shops were vandalised.

Berlin's unwaveringly hard line on the need for Greece to stick to economic reforms in return for aid is shared in other capitals from Helsinki to previous bailout recipients Madrid and Lisbon.

But tough talk from Europe's effective paymaster has sparked bitter exchanges with Athens since elections last month ushered in Tspiras' anti-austerity government on a wave of anger at years of funding cuts and belt-tightening.

Germany is Greece's only eurozone partner to hold a parliamentary vote on granting it the extension, which aimed to avert a potentially calamitous end-February deadline that could have seen Athens default and exit from the euro.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor with a penchant for plain talking, again raised temperatures in Germany by calling Wednesday for a discussion to "begin immediately" on renegotiating the country's mountain of debt.

Greece is 320 billion euros in debt, a sum equivalent to 175 percent of its annual economic output, and is now mostly owed to its European partners.

Schaeuble expressed "disbelief" Thursday at the very suggestion of debt relief for Greece.

Merkel, who has championed painful economic reforms in EU states in return for aid, faces political pressure from bailout-weary voters at home.

Top-selling tabloid-style newspaper Bild again Friday fanned public sentiment against more aid for Greece amid German taxpayers' widespread fears that they will never see the money again.

"Bild-readers say Nein (no)!" read the front-page headline, showing photos of readers holding up a large sign stating "Nein - no more billions for the greedy Greeks" that was published in the previous day's edition.

A contrary "Yes! Yes! Yes!" was the headline of a commentary by news site Spiegel Online.

"We need ... a loud 'Yes' to the euro, to Europe ... " it said.

The International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, which together with the eurozone states hold most of Greece's debts, have expressed misgivings about the extension.

Merkel has said the extension is just a "starting point" and that Berlin is under "no illusions" about the challenges ahead.

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