Athens Digest 27.09.2018

• MinFin Tsakalotos says budget surplus will cover tax threshold too

• Aid probe set to focus on refugee-camp catering

• Asylum application numbers rebound in second quarter

• Oil-and-gas majors to sign Greece deals

# Euclid Tsakalotos, the finance minister, says a strong budget performance expected over the next two years will allow the government to roll back its pledge to impose tax hikes in 2020 as well as the cancel promised pension cuts. Speaking in parliament, Tsakalotos criticised lawmakers from the opposition benches who had predicted that the government would miss its primary surplus targets. “We will have sufficient fiscal space not to reduce pensions and not to raise the tax threshold, and to bring in much of our (relief) measures programme,” the minister said.

# The EU Commission has confirmed that allegations of refugee-aid mismanagement in Greece will be referred to the bloc’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, but stressed that no EU-funded activities had been disrupted. Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said OLAF would be examining allegations of illegitimate profits by catering companies _ a task outside the Commission’s direct competence. “We have visited (the camps) twice to verify that the project is in place. That allowed us to continue the financing. In the meantime we referred to OLAF because we are not competent to investigate any allegations on fraud,” she said.

# Greece has seen sharp rise in asylum applications in the second quarter of 2018, the second highest increase among EU countries after Spain. Eurostat reported that first-time applications were up by 85 percent on the quarter in Spain and 26 percent in Greece. Germany remained the most popular destination for asylum seekers with 25 percent of the total applications, or 33,700, being filed there in the second quarter. It was followed by France at 19 percent or 26,100 applications, and then Greece (16,300, or 12 percent) and Spain (16,200, also 12 percent). The number of people from Venezuela seeking shelter in the EU has markedly increased in recent months. Efforts in Greece to move more asylum seekers out of overcrowded camps and onto the mainland have been halted due to bad weather as a Mediterranean cyclone warning remained in effect through Saturday.

# Officials at the Ministry of Energy and Environment are due to sign landmark provisional agreements today green-lighting oil-and-gas exploration ventures in southern Greece. The consortium of Exxon Mobil, Total, and Hellenic Petroleum was awarded a tender for two sites off the island of Crete, while Hellenic Petroleum was awarded a separate tender off the western Peloponnese. The agreements will be submitted for legal review along with environmental impact studies, and must ultimately be approved by parliament.

On our Radar: Employers’ Plea
Greek businesses are urging the government to make immediate cuts to income contributions towards pension and social security funds, worried that expected minimum wage hikes could trigger high labour costs and hurt hard-earned competitiveness. The Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, SEV, and its chairman Theodore Fessas made a direct appeal to Labour Minister Effie Achtsioglou who attended a meeting of the federation’s executive. The gradual restoration of employment rights has been highlighted as a priority by the Tsipras government following the end of the bailout.