* As EU president, Athens will have work to do to clear the air - and its name - during the six-month stint *
Greece embarks on its six-month term as rotating EU president on January 1 and despite its ongoing economic woes, the country is adamant it will be an "honest broker" at the head of the Union until the end of the semester on June 30.
At a presentation of Athens' top priorities during its six months at the head of the EU, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said economic growth, social cohesion and asylum policy would be paramount. Heading a fragile coalition government, Samaras also said that the completion of the European banking union would be given due attention.
With regard to economic growth, his government of Conservatives and Socialists with a marginal majority in parliament intends to provide an example for its EU partners, promising to leave the recession behind that has plagued the country for years.
However, few believe at this stage that Athens can make good on those pledges, according to an analysis by Germany’s public service broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Critics, it said, have even questioned whether the decision to place Greece in the chair of the European Council was a good one - in the face of its still withered economy.
Despite its ongoing crisis, Greece will deliver a solid presidency, said Panagiotis Ioakeimidis, professor for European policy at the University of Athens. It's the least the country could do to improve its image within Europe and restore the credibility it has lost in recent years. "And I think this is exactly what will happen," Ioakeimidis told DW.
This confidence is shared by the Socialist EU parliamentarian Sylvana Rapti, who is a close aide of Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos. She is annoyed by skepticism as to whether Greece can function as EU chair: "Such distrust is born out of malevolence," an emphatic Rapti said in an interview with DW.
"Let's not forget: Belgium had to fight against such sentiments during its EU presidency in 2010. They didn't even have a government back then, and still they performed well; their crisis didn't affect Europe in the least," she added.
This will be Athens' fifth run in the rotating EU presidency; and, like before, Athens will continue to work for a socially conscious Europe, even if their successes have been moderate in the past.
In 1988, Andreas Papandreou pushed for a European Social Charta, which only a year later was passed under the French EU presidency. In 1994, Athens' social agenda was set aside in the face of negotiations for an enlargement of the EU to the north. In 2003, the Greek EU presidency was completely shadowed by the Iraq crisis and divisions within Europe that emerged as a result.
In the coming year, Athens is looking once again to promote social cohesion within Europe. In particular, the government wants to devote attention to youth unemployment and ways the EU can subsidise the transition of young people into jobs. And this time attempts may not be in vain, says Sylvana Rapti.
Calls for a more social Europe are growing in frequency and intensity, she adds. Those who have long opposed the movement are becoming isolated, and not only in crisis-ridden Greece.
APPROACH TO REFUGEES
"This presidency will be about Europe, and not just Greece," agrees Ioakeimidis of Athens University who, as an advisor to the foreign office, was part of each of Greece's five stints as EU chair. In 2003, he was in charge of advising Costas Simitis on Greek policy in Europe.
Ioakeimidis is certain that asylum policy will play a decisive role in the upcoming presidency. But even here, it will be impossible to avoid a conflict of interest: "In the past, the Greek presidencies worked on the Dublin Regulation (a law regulating the asylum application process) despite the fact that the Greek government was against it. They feared it would force the countries on the Europe's periphery to take on responsibility for refugees."
Although Ioakeimidis doesn't believe that Athens will attempt to amend the Dublin Regulation, per se, he does think European asylum policy could be improved: "A reinforcement of the border control agency FRONTEX will most certainly be on the agenda, as well as negotiations with the newly implemented EU working group for Mediterranean members," said the Athens-based European expert.
"I don't expect that the [Greek] presidency will be, and can be, as smooth as other presidencies," said Zsolt Darvas, an economist and senior fellow at the Bruegel Institute in Brussels.
"It will be very difficult for Greece due to its (internal) problems, its public administration inefficiency and the time pressure imposed by the European Parliament elections," he told AFP.
In the European Parliament elections in May, eurosceptics and far-right parties are poised to score major gains that could harden the bloc's political agenda for the next five years.
Greece itself is scheduled to hold municipal elections on May 18 and 25, a process expected to bolster political forces opposed to the government's austerity policies and the economic agreement with the country's EU-IMF creditors.
Anti-austerity Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, recently named the radical left's candidate for European Commission president, has pledged to reverse many of the spending cuts and tax hikes imposed as part of Greece's loan rescue, while a more sinister threat could come from Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party under investigation for serious crimes including murder and extortion.
Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor and columnist at liberal daily Kathimerini, says that Greece's European peers have a tangible interest in helping Athens see the presidency through.
"The whole of the EU understands that they have to show something that will prevent the rise of populism," he said.
In its fifth EU presidency since joining the bloc in 1981, Athens pledged to organise a "spartan" presidency.
The overall cost is calculated at 50 mln euros but the foreign ministry hopes to eventually return part of the money to state coffers.
The Greek presidency, taking over from Lithuania, will be officially unveiled on January 8 when the EU's 28 commissioners are to convene in Athens.
Samaras will then present the Greek priorities in Strasbourg on January 16.
Italy takes over from Greece in June.
OPPORTUNITY FOR TURKEY
Besides all these developments, the Greek presidency is also important for the relations between Turkey and the EU. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visiting Athens on December 13 stated that the presidency period of Greece is an opportunity for Turkey.
Also, he emphasised that during this period, Turkey wants to reach the opening of chapters in the greatest possible number and to continue the visa exemption negotiations with the same momentum. Then, Davutoglu added that Turkey is also ready to support the priorities of Athens’ presidency and underlined that the increasing cooperation between the two countries in the Balkans and other issues will be beneficial for the EU as well as Greece and Turkey.
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