Athens Digest 18.04.2018

• Tsipras sticks to script as growth forecast slips

• Merci Macron: French president’s speech met with relief in Athens

• Name talks get nudge from Brussels

• New port owners face hefty repair bill

# Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited the island of Kastelorizo yesterday to underline his government’s message that Greece would end eight years of successive bailouts without too many strings attached. “We are taking the future into our own hands … Our (post-bailout) plans will be tailored to our needs and will not be dictated by third parties,” he said. The PM traveled to the tiny island to inaugurate new desalination plants, but his chosen location was rich with symbolism: the eastern Aegean is where Greece-Turkish tension has spiked in recent weeks, and it was in Kastelorizo where former prime minister George Papandreou made the dramatic announcement back in April 2010 that Greece would need an international bailout to avoid bankruptcy. Tuesday’s trip, however, was marred by disappointing news from the IMF. The Fund revised Greece’s growth forecast downwards from 2.6 to 2.0 in 2018 _ making demands for tougher budgetary measures in 2019 more likely. New Democracy called the IMF revision proof of the government’s “groundless narrative” of a strong recovery. Government officials noted dryly that IMF forecasts have been off the mark in the past.

# Greek military officials said Turkish fighters were intercepted near the prime minister’s helicopter as he traveled between islands. Greece, Tsipras said, would not be intimidated by what he described as a “period of instability” in the Aegean, caused by Ankara’s “unjustifiable behaviour.” His deputy defence minister, Fotis Kouvelis, said he was concerned that a military incident could be triggered by accident. Nerves in Athens were calmed by a public reassurance from French President Emmanuel Macron whose passionate defence of the EU at the European Parliament included a reference to Greece: “France will be by the side of any member-state whose sovereignty is being threatened … That was our position with the Skripal case in the United Kingdom and that is our position towards Greece which is under threat in the eastern Mediterranean.”

# Talks between Greece and FYROM got a nudge forward in Brussels, as the EU Commission declared that the country was ready to start accession negotiations The Commission’s recommendation note stressed that: “The ‘name issue’ needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency.” In Skopje, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev vowed to press ahead with EU-requested reforms. His foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said agreement had already been reached on the core issue of the name compromise but that secondary issues _ including constitutional guarantees _ were holding up an overall deal. Greek officials, irritated that details of the negotiations have repeatedly been made public in Skopje, made no comment on yesterday’s recommendation.

# The new owners of the privatized Port of Thessaloniki have complained that facility repairs will cost 27 million euros above their planned expenses. Officials from the winning consortium described parts of the port as resembling a “scrap heap.” In the recently finalized sale, Deutsche Invest Equity Partners, Terminal Link SAS, and Belterra Investments, owned by Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis, agreed to pay EUR232 million for a 67 percent stake in the port and pledged further investment worth up to EUR180 million _ expanding and deepening the port to create a potential competitor to Piraeus.

On our Radar: Foul Pay
Debt is not only on the mind of Greece’s government and most of its households, but also its famous football team. Panathinaikos narrowly escaped relegation after swiftly settling debts with three of its best known former players, including one-time Chelsea great Michael Essien, who spent an injury-plagued season in Athens three years ago. The club was ordered by a sports judge to make payments to the three players by the end of the week or have nine points deducted from its league tally _ a penalty that would almost certainly see it fail its end-of-season financial assessment. Normally a contender for the Greek title, Panathinaikos is currently languishing below mid-table, while AEK Athens has rebounded from bankruptcy to eye its first league trophy in 24 years.