Saturday 6 August 2011


Greece's finance minister: 'We will make a superhuman effort'
Evangelos Venizelos introduced austerity measures to tackle the Greek debt crisis – now he pledges a crackdown on tax evasion


By Helena Smith

FINWhen Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek finance minister, first met his colleagues in Brussels in June the atmosphere was far from congenial. In the post for barely a day, the burly professor of law listened impassively as eurozone finance ministers berated him for the lack of progress Athens had made in reining in its runaway debt.

Greece was all mouth and no action; it was good at passing reforms to modernise its basket case of an economy but then did nothing to enforce them.

At the end of the tirade, Venizelos took the stand and promised to deliver.

Two weeks later, at the next gathering of finance ministers, he had overseen passage of a €28bn (£24.4bn) fiscal plan of spending cuts and tax increases and a law accelerating implementation of the measures, and he had kickstarted the biggest privatisation drive in western history.

"We are in the midst of a battle," he says, slumping into a sofa in his sixth-floor office on Syntagma Square, the arena for many of the violent protests that have rocked Greece this summer. "A battle to implement a program of fiscal consolidation … a battle to execute the budget, a battle to enforce privatisations.

"It's very important for us to act on our commitments to the EU and IMF. And, we will be true to our word," adds the minister, who this week told parliament that Greece was in a race against time to render its debt dynamics more sustainable. "We will make a superhuman effort to be true to our word."

As job descriptions go, Venizelos's is not the best: with days that begin with gargantuan amounts of pressure at 6am, end well after midnight and are prone to the moods of merciless markets, there are few who envy him the post. Work, say aides, is what he does to relax.

"Someone has to do the job," says the politician, smiling. He also holds the position of deputy prime minister. "It's my duty to Greece and to Europe to do what I can."

The 53-year-old is visibly pale – in contrast to other overworked Greek cabinet ministers who bear the bronze complexion of those who at least have managed a day or two in the sun – but his efforts appear to be paying off.

Even critics speak of a "new wind" blowing through the finance ministry with Venizelos, one of the country's best orators, being credited for bringing a gravitas to the job that his less communicative predecessor lacked.

Tax evasion – a practice that is as old as the hills and is widely viewed as Greece's biggest problem – will, he says, be dealt with mercilessly. A political heavyweight in the ruling socialist party, Venizelos took Greeks by surprise last week when he announced that a whopping €37bn in accumulated state-owed debt was actually in the hands of fewer than 14,000 individuals.

"He won't be going after the little fish, he'll be going after the big fish and, no matter who, they'll be punished," an aide said.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bank that triggered the global financial crisis in 2008, is he says, a spectre that still haunts the EU,

"It is broadly accepted that from 2008 when the crisis began, the European Union could have moved faster and more effectively," he said. "But now I think everyone is conscious of that, everyone has learned their lesson."

At the EU summit in July, where Greece was rescued to the tune of €109bn, following an initial bailout of €110bn last year, Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, had gone so far as to invoke the ghost of Lehman Brothers to goad Europe's finance ministers into action.

"I think that says a lot of things," Venizelos said. "No country, and no banking system in Europe, will be left [to suffer that fate]. I am certain the eurozone's members and its banking system are safe."

The decision to give Greece a second bailout signalled a new resolve in Europe to tackle the spiralling debt crisis with more decisiveness and courage, he believes.

Venizelos refused to be drawn on criticism of the deficit-reducing programme by the conservative main opposition party. "This country has to be united and serious, it has to speak with a single voice.

"I am necessarily optimistic. Psychology plays a huge role in economics. It is half of everything."


* Relative Link: Greece's finance minister: 'We will make a superhuman effort'

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