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European Union

Protest in Athens as EU marks Greece presidency

Bailout recipient Greece has ceremonially assumed the European Union's six-month presidency amid praise for its reform efforts from visiting senior EU officials. They visited Athens during a widespread ban on protest.

Greece begins EU presidency

Several hundred Greek leftists defied a protest ban and scuffled with police in Athens late on Wednesday as Greece was ceremonially inaugurated as the EU's presiding nation for six months.

Police, who had shut down roads and railway stations for 18 hours in central Athens, dispersed the protestors with tear gas. No arrests or injuries were reported.

The protestors had tried to breach a cordon at Athen's university, close to the venue used by visiting EU officials, including the bloc's 28 commissioners.

Focus on May elections

Greece's role as president - officially from January 1 - requires it to help organize the European Parliament elections in May, in which voters could react negatively to austerity cuts and joblessness.

Visiting European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso insisted that financial rescue packages provided by international lenders, including the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were working after six years of recession and austerities.

"There is evidence that those who predicted that Greece would be forced out of the eurozone were wrong," Barroso told journalists in Athens, referring to Greece's parallel inclusion in the bloc's common currency arrangement.

"This is not the time to slow down the pace of reforms," he added while pointing to Ireland, another EU-IMF loan recipient, which recently managed to return to raising funds on financial markets.

'Leaving the crisis behind'

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (pictured with Barroso) said "with great sacrifices" Greece was "leaving the crisis behind it." He added that during its presidency, Greece would focus on unemployment, migration and a proposed European banking union.

"Greece is now back on its feet; Europe knows its course well," Samaras said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas said Greece aimed to run its presidency on just 50 million euros ($67 million) and hoped for "some savings at the end."

"We will hold cultural events within a limited budget," he said.

Greece's left-wing opposition party SYRIZA led by Alexis Tsipras boycotted Wednesday's EU ceremonies. The party disagrees with presidency priorities set by Samaras' conservative-led coalition and has been a strong critic of past government austerity cuts.

Greece has received most of the 240 billion euros allocated as bailout loans.

But it still has a financing gap of around 11 billion euros ($15 billion) for the second part of 2014 and 2015 to consider, according to Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras.

Since 2009, the rotating presidency - designed to share responsibility among the bloc's 28 members - has lost some prominence because of the creation in 2009 of a permanent European Council president. Herman Van Rompuy currently holds that position.

ipj/slk (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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