Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Greece to face European Commission economic scrutiny

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou
Prime Minister George Papandreou is seeking support for austerity measures

Greece will face the most stringent monitoring of any European Union country as it attempts to balance its finances over the next few years.

The news came as the European Commission confirmed its support of Greece's plans to reduce its deficit.

EU economic commissioner Joaquín Almunia also launched an infringement procedure to ensure Greek authorities report reliable budgetary statistics.

Greece's deficit is more than four times higher than eurozone rules allow.

Jonny Dymond
Jonny Dymond, BBC Europe correspondent

The concern in Brussels is not just that Greece might need to be bailed out, but also that financial markets' nervousness about Greece might spread to other euro-economies in trouble.

So the commission is recommending acceptance of Greece's plan to cut its deficit - but also the most extensive intrusion into a member state's economy that the EU has known.

Few in Brussels appear to believe that the Greek government will hold to its promises to slash the deficit unless it is being pushed hard by euro partners.

And after long years of dodgy statistics from the Greek authorities, the EU is insisting on a direct role in the monitoring of Greece's recovery plan.

Progress reviews

Mr Almunia welcomed the additional fiscal measures taken by Greece.

He said: "We consider that the programme is ambitious, and that the programme in terms of targets is achievable.

"We are endorsing the Greek programme. But at the same time we know that the implementation of the programme is not easy. It is difficult. This deserves support."

However, Mr Almunia acknowledged that tackling the debt was difficult politically and complex technically.

He said that EU officials would monitor carefully the efforts of the Greek programme and would demand extra action if it was not on track to meet the deficit goals.

EU economic ministers will next meet on 16 February. Provided they accept the commission's recommendations, new deadlines will be set for Greece to review progress with officials.

It will have to submit a first report on 16 March, with a second deadline on 16 May.

Nigel Cassidy, the BBC's Europe business reporter, said the reliability of Greece's budgetary statistics was a long-standing issue.

People walking past a closed shop in Athens

"This was the problem before. Everybody here in Brussels knew Greece was not being very honest with its economic figures but nobody did anything about it," he said.

Fear of contagion

Greece is struggling with its worst economic crisis since joining the euro in 2001.

It has one of the smaller economies in the European Union, but it is being watched closely because of the doubts financial markets have in it.

Its long-term deficit cutting plan aims to reduce the budget shortfall, currently 12.7%, to less than 3% by 2012, but many people in Brussels and beyond remain sceptical.

There are other bigger economies in the eurozone that face the same deficit problems and the fear of contagion is high.

Prime Minister George Papandreou has urged the public to support his programme of tough austerity measures, which includes increases on fuel duty and a public sector pay freeze.

However, public sector workers are planning a strike next week.

European debt and deficit figures

'No way out'

Mario Levis, Professor of Finance at Cass Business School, said it was going to be very challenging for the government to achieve its targets.

Gavin Hewitt
The stability of the euro may be determined by events on the streets of Athens
Gavin Hewitt
BBC Europe editor

"To bring the deficit down in the next three years is extremely difficult. Increasing taxes is not enough. They have to increase productivity," he said.

And he added that more may need to be done to get the public on board.

"I think Greeks will appreciate, if it's fully explained to them, the severity of the situation. There's no way out.

"But the prime minister has said there's widespread tax evasion in the public sector... [and] there are not enough measures being announced yet to cut down on tax evasion."

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