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Germany approves Greek bailout talks

Henry Chu Los Angeles Times

LONDON – German lawmakers fell in line behind Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday and gave the go-ahead to bailout talks with Greece, despite deep hostility among many to lending more money to a country they say does not deserve it.

Approval by Berlin, the pre-eminent power in the eurozone, is indispensable to organizing an expected $94 billion rescue package for Athens in exchange for a punishing regimen of further austerity and tax hikes. The 439-119 vote in the Bundestag to authorize bailout negotiations capped hours of debate during which one lawmaker likened Greece to a bottomless pit while others warned of Germany’s increasingly negative image abroad as the heartless taskmaster of Europe.

“I know that many have doubts and concerns about whether this road will be successful, about whether Greece will have the strength to take it in the long term,” Merkel said. “But I am firmly convinced of one thing: We would be grossly negligent, even irresponsible, if we did not at least try this road.”

She noted that a new bailout package – Greece’s third in five years – would entail strict outside oversight to ensure Athens stuck to its pledges of fiscal and economic reform.

Those pledges encompass everything from allowing Sunday trading to overhauling the labor market to selling off billions of dollars’ worth of state-owned assets. Draconian budget cuts, on top of several previous rounds of austerity, are also part of a pre-bailout agreement Merkel and other European leaders reached with Athens this week.

The Greek government acquiesced to the tough conditions in the face of a disastrous alternative: a chaotic default and the ejection of Greece from the eurozone, the club of 19 nations that use the euro currency.

Some relief for Greece came through with the approval Friday by European authorities of a nearly $8 billion “bridge loan” for Athens to meet its immediate funding needs.

The harsh terms of the deal to rescue the Greeks, which mostly derived from a German blueprint, sparked accusations that Berlin either sought to humiliate Greece or impose such intolerable conditions for a bailout that it would choose to exit the euro.

With the coalition government’s commanding majority in the Bundestag, the outcome of the vote was never in doubt. But as many as 50 lawmakers in Merkel’s bloc voted no, up from the number who dissented in a previous bailout-related vote earlier this year. There were 40 abstentions.

Austria also approved the launch of bailout negotiations Friday, the Associated Press reported.

In Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras reshuffled his Cabinet on Friday after dealing with a rank-and-file rebellion of his own. He sacked ministers from the hard-left faction of his Syriza party who voted against economic reforms passed by the Parliament on Thursday to pave the way for bailout talks.

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