Greece faces more woes: Finance minister resigns

By ELENA BECATOROS,Associated Press Updated at 2012-06-25 20:41:03 +0000


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The banker who was chosen to be Greece's next finance minister resigned for health reasons Monday three days after he was rushed to the hospital, while the country's prime minister was confined to his home, recovering from serious eye surgery.

Greece's debt woes took a backseat to the health problems of the country's five-day-old government, forcing debt inspectors to postpone a visit to Athens and prompting Germany to warn Monday that a European Union summit later this week would be unlikely to produce any major decisions on Greece.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras accepted the resignation of Vassilis Rapanos hours after being discharged from another hospital himself following an operation to repair a detached retina over the weekend.

Rapanos, chairman of the National Bank of Greece, had been named finance minister last week in the country's new three-party coalition government but became ill Friday before he could be sworn in. The Hygeia Hospital said his condition was improving and he was expected to be discharged Tuesday, but it did not elaborate on what he was suffering from.

"The recent incident that led to my admission to a hospital shows that my health problem has not been fully overcome," Rapanos said in his letter of resignation, released by Samaras' office. Talks with his doctors led him to determine that "my health situation, for the time being, is not such that would allow me to fully and efficiently exercise my duties."

It was unclear when a replacement would be named. As he had not been sworn in, outgoing Finance Minister Giorgos Zanias, a key negotiator for Greece's international bailout before assuming the post in a one-month caretaker government, still holds the title.

Samaras himself will have to remain at home for several days and will be unable to travel to the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, although he can have meetings, doctors said. He spoke by telephone Monday evening with President Barack Obama.

The EU summit comes just a week after Greece's new coalition government was formed, following months of political turmoil and two inconclusive elections. It was to have been a key test of Athens' hopes of renegotiating some of the austerity measures it has agreed to in return for billions of euros in rescue loans from the International Monetary Fund and other nations in the 17-country euro currency union.

But before this week's summit, international debt inspectors known as the troika — representatives from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF — had been due to visit Athens to review Greece's financial situation. They postponed the trip due to Samaras' and Rapanos' hospitalization.

Without the troika report on Greece's progress on the economic reforms demanded by creditors, Germany said it would be premature to expect any new decisions.

"The troika needs to go to Athens, they need to assess the status of the program, then they need to brief the eurozone and IMF leadership," said Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "On the basis of this assessment, one can talk about necessary updating of the program — that is the road map that everyone in Europe is following and that's why we don't expect any sort of a resolution on Greece at the EU council."

The Athens Stock Exchange general price index closed 6.84 percent down Monday after the German statement.

Greece will still go to the EU summit, sending Zanias with a delegation led by the country's president, 83-year-old Karolos Papoulias, the government announced Monday. While the Greek presidency is largely a ceremonial post, Papoulias' presence adheres to EU regulations about summits.

European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said debt inspectors will head to Greece "as soon as possible."

After years of profligate government spending and false accounting, Greece has been dependent on two rescue loan deals worth a total of €240 billion ($300 billion) since May 2010. Its inability to resolve its debt woes have led to questions about the financial health of the entire eurozone.

Samaras' government, comprised of his New Democracy conservatives, their long-time socialist rivals PASOK and the small Democratic Left party, has said it wants to revise some of Greece's bailout conditions with creditors. That includes repealing certain tax hikes, freezing public sector layoffs and extending by two years the mid-2014 deadline for tough austerity measures that have sent Greek living standards plunging.

But Germany, the largest single contributor to the bailouts, has repeatedly said Athens must stick to its pledges.

"One thing is clear," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. "We cannot allow everything to be negotiated again. We can also not allow discounts to be granted. What has been decided upon stands."

Seibert also stressed that Greece must stick to its commitments.

"A program has been agreed upon, a program goes for every government, no matter if it's a new government, and the program is the best way to see Greece return to economic health," he said.

The latest figures released by the finance ministry Monday showed Greece's budget deficit for the first five months of 2012 was better than expected, coming in at €10.87 billion ($13.63 billion) instead of the target of €12.89 billion ($16.17 billion) on a modified cash basis.

Revenue, however, was below target with the state budget net revenue at €19.67 billion ($24.56 billion), short of the target of €20.6 billion ($25.73 billion). It said that was due in part to lower domestic consumer demand and lower tax revenues.

The ministry said the revenue shortfall was "more than compensated" by the budget savings for the first five months of 2012.


David Rising in Berlin and Toby Sterling in Brussels contributed.