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European Union

Greece takes over the EU presidency as Samaras' popularity slumps

Greece - seen by many as the epicenter of the Europe’s sovereign debt crisis - has taken over the presidency of the EU for the next six months. Meanwhile, the Athens government faces a stern test at home.

Greece took over the EU Presidency from Lithuania - a status the debt-hit country will retain for the first half of 2014 - as midnight struck to bring in the New Year on Wednesday.

The presidency means that Athens becomes an important venue for high-level EU meetings this year. At the same time, the country is still struggling to deal with the worst financial crisis in its relatively short history as a democracy. Unemployment in the country runs at about 27 percent.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has said the country will remain focused on its principal goals of saving, encouraging growth and combating illegal immigration. Meanwhile, its budget for holding the EU Presidency - at some 50 million euros - is the lowest in the history of the bloc-wide role.

Samaras' government faces some stern political tests at home - with polls suggesting that his coalition of conservatives and socialists would no longer command a majority.

The anti-bailout Syriza party - with its 0.4 to 2.5 point lead over Samaras' conservative New Democracy party according to two December newspaper polls - has benefited most from growing frustration with austerity policies.

New status overshadowed

Both Syriza and far-right parties are expected to score big gains in elections for the European Parliament in May.

The assumption of the presidency was somewhat overshadowed this week by an attack with a Kalashnikov rifle on the German embassy in Athens on Monday. Anti-German sentiment has risen as Greece's economic woes continue, with many blaming Berlin's insistence on financial rigor for the country's problems.

While no-one has claimed responsibility for the gun attack, it was widely condemned by the political mainstream, including Syriza.

Germany is the biggest single contributing nation to the 240-billion-euro bailout program to Greece since 2010. Germany has extended at least 15 billion euros ($20.67 billion) of bilateral loans to Greece as part of the bailout.

rc/av (AFP, dpa)

DW.DE