BRUSSELS (AP) — Greece’s finance minister and international creditors made “substantial progress” Friday in narrowing their differences over the bailout program keeping the Greek economy afloat, amid renewed tensions about the country’s future in the euro.
“We made substantial progress today and are close to common ground for the mission to return to Athens in the coming week,” Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chairs the eurozone finance ministers’ group, said after the talks in Brussels.
Dijsselbloem said all sides have “a clear understanding that a timely finalization of the second (bailout) review is in everybody’s interest.”
He said the 19 eurozone finance ministers will take stock of progress at their next official meeting on Feb. 20. Concluding the review could give Athens access to more bailout funds and pave the way for important discussions about helping Greece ease its debt burden, which currently stands at about 180 percent of its gross domestic product.
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Greece needs to agree with the International Monetary Fund and its European creditors on more reforms to keep tapping the bailout loans. Although Greece insists it doesn’t have pressing cash needs, without the money it would eventually face the renewed possibility of default — something that nearly caused it to fall out of the euro bloc in 2015.
Greece’s next big debt repayment deadline is in July, but officials want to solve its funding problems before then as key European elections loom as early as next month. The Netherlands goes to the polls on March 15, followed by France in April and May and Germany in September, and the issue of providing more loans to Greece is politically sensitive.
Negotiations over Greece’s reforms remain mired in disagreement. The Greek government opposes labor reforms, and the IMF is at odds with European lenders over the extent to which the country’s massive debts should be eased.
Dijsselbloem said before Friday’s talks that they would not be about debt relief.
“What is on the table is the budget, the primary surplus, further reforms in the pension system,” he said.
He said he called the meeting to give impetus to the process, which has dragged on for several months, but insisted he was in no particular rush and that “stories about a crisis are a gross exaggeration.”
Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands contributed.