Protests off limits for Greece's presidency kick-off, minister says debt talks on track

ATHENS, Greece – Greek authorities imposed an 18-hour ban on protests across the centre of Athens during events planned Wednesday to mark the inauguration of the nation’s six-month presidency of the European Union.

The police order will take effect at 6:00 a.m. (0400GMT) Wednesday, hours before EU commissioners, led by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, attend the Athens events.

A similar protest ban was imposed last year during a visit to Athens by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Greece is hoping to emerge from a grueling, six-year recession during its presidency, and negotiate a landmark deal with bailout creditors to make its massive national debt sustainable.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said Greece could negotiate the debt deal before the end of the presidency on June 30. The country is set to achieve its central target of posting a primary budget surplus, balancing its annual public finances before interest payments.

“If we stick to our basic timetable, I do believe these decisions will be made during our term in the presidency,” he said.

Stournaras stuck with the government prediction that Greece will emerge from recession this year, pointing to several key improvements, including the interest rate on the 10-year Greek government, which dropped below 8 per cent Tuesday, after reaching nearly 13 per cent in last March.

A record 17.8 million tourists visited Greece in 2013, spending 12.5 billion euros ($17 billion), according to government and industry estimates, boosting public finances.

Greece’s national debt, however, is set to reach 176 per cent of gross domestic product this year, with the economy weakened by years of austerity measures and recession.

More than 2,000 police officers will be on duty for the inauguration events Wednesday. One left-wing protest group promised to defy the ban.

“The European Union and the European Central Bank are continuing to tighten the noose around our necks, demanding that staff be fired at public hospitals and state schools,” said protest organizer Petros Constantinou, who is planning to lead a central Athens rally.

“No one will be fooled by the (inauguration) party they are planning.”