April 25, 2017 / 10:26 AM / 3 months ago

Greece calls for debt relief as bailout talks resume in Athens

FILE PHOTO: A Greek presidential guard performs a ceremonial march at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the parliament building in Athens, Greece, September 15, 2015.Paul Hanna/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's prime minister held out for a commitment from lenders to debt relief on Tuesday, and said he was confident new talks in Athens over a long-stalled bailout review would reach a deal by a May 22 target.

Talks over reforms in the energy and labor market and pension cuts and income tax increases have dragged on for months, mainly due to differences between EU lenders and the International Monetary Fund over fiscal targets.

Athens and the lenders reached a preliminary deal this month in Malta on key elements of reforms to produce savings worth 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Tsipras, who faces national elections in 2019 and whose popularity is sagging, said the country would legislate the additional measures sought by its lenders but implementing them was contingent on securing further debt relief.

"We will obviously legislate (the measures) in order to secure a deal on debt relief," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told ANT1 television. "They won't be implemented ... unless we get a solution on debt."

He added that a sovereign government had the right to back out of a deal if its interlocutors did not respect it.

Greece wants to conclude the bailout review as soon as possible to qualify for inclusion in the European Central Bank's quantitative easing program and return to bond markets.

"Our aim is to conclude the bailout review and immediately after that to return to markets," Tsipras said. He was speaking two days after the seventh anniversary of Greece's call for international aid to avert bankrupcty.

Tsipras said the return to markets should be "sustainable" and not a "one-off", to help it emerge from crisis by 2018, when its third bailout expires.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Caryatids, the sculpted female figures supporting the porch of the ancient Erectheion temple, atop the Acropolis hill in Athens, Greece, October 23, 2016.Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

He added the country aimed to reach a deal by May 22, when euro zone finance ministers are expected to discuss the Greek issue.

"On May 22, which I want to believe is a realistic target, we'll also have a comprehensive deal, including debt," he said.

Imf Role

The date to conclude a deal on a so-called review of Greece's bailout progress has been a moving target. It was supposed to have been wrapped up late last year.

The talks, at a central Athens hotel, focused on energy reforms and a privatization fund on Tuesday.

Concluding the review of Greece's progress will also unlock funds which Athens needs to repay loans maturing in July.

Greece has agreed to implement more austerity after the bailout expires in 2018, to persuade the IMF to participate in an 86 billion-euro bailout package, the third rescue plan since the debt crisis began.

Greece attained a 4.2 percent of GDP primary surplus last year, significantly above the target set in its bailout. But the IMF says the country cannot maintain high fiscal surpluses and wants assurances from euro zone governments that Greek debt will be made sustainable, before it will join the bailout.

Germany, which faces elections in September, wants the IMF on board to add credibility to the bailout, but it is also crucial for Tsipras who argues debt relief is needed for a nation which has suffered from years of austerity.

Athens and its lenders are discussing a set of measures offsetting the impact of austerity in 2019 and 2020, on condition that Athens outperforms its targets. These measures include reducing taxes.

Editing by Andrew Roche

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