ATHENS -- With the Greek economy seizing up and the specter of sovereign default still looming, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Wednesday launched a high-gear diplomatic offensive aimed at buying his country more time to implement reforms demanded by increasingly impatient European creditors.
Samaras was set to meet with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, the head of the 17-nation Eurozone and the most influential European policymaker to visit Greece since an election in June put Samaras at the head of a shaky conservative-led coalition government.
Although Juncker has frequently sympathized with Athens' struggle to jump-start its sputtering economy -- just last week, he lashed out against renewed speculation that Greece might be forced out of the euro -- it remained unclear whether he would support Samaras' plea for more time to make deeper austerity cuts.
Two previous governments have failed to comply with the terms of two multibillion-dollar bailouts given Greece by its European peers and the International Monetary Fund, which have so far spared this debt-laden Mediterranean nation and the rest of the Eurozone from the potentially catastrophic effects of a Greek bankruptcy.
Officials in Athens hope Wednesday's talks will build up positive momentum for crucial meetings Samaras is scheduled to hold later this week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Berlin and Paris, respectively.
Under the latest bailout deal, Greece has to deliver at least $14 billion in added budget cuts to keep its emergency loans flowing. The loans help Athens pay state salaries and pensions, among other expenses.
But now in its fifth year of deep recession, the Greek government says it needs a bit of a breather.
"All we want is a bit of 'air to breathe' to get the economy running and to increase state income," Samaras told Germany's Bild newspaper. He added that the request did not automatically mean that Greece needed more money from its creditors.
The conservative leader, who opposed the tough terms of the first bailout while in the opposition, stitched together his ruling coalition on the basis of a pledge to temper austerity with growth-oriented policies and to win an additional two years to fulfill Greece's commitments to its international lenders. The current deadline is 2014.
But Merkel and leaders in other Northern European nations have balked at any talk of giving Greece more leeway or more money. Analysts say Samaras faces a tall order in trying to convince them otherwise.
"This will be a very hard sell for the Greek government," Megan Greene of Roubini Global Economics wrote in a recent analysis. "A relaxation of fiscal targets would require additional funding for Greece, but asking the Bundestag to approve more bailout money ... is an absolute non-starter.”
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, shown in Athens in July. Credit: Aris Messinis / AFP/Getty Images