Euro zone technocrats recommend EU/IMF mission chiefs return to Greece for bailout talks

Greek Finance Minister Tsakalotos speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Finance in Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) – Euro zone deputy finance ministers have recommended that Greek bailout review talks continue in Athens, a government official said on Friday, as Athens and its creditors seek a deal on reforms to unlock further aid.

The recommendation, after a teleconference late on Thursday, is a sign of progress in the drawn-out talks between Greece and its international lenders on the country’s fiscal progress and on labor and energy reforms. The delays have rekindled fears of a new crisis in Europe.

The technical teams of the lenders, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, are expected to make a final decision later on Friday on their return to Athens to wrap up talks on a technical agreement ahead of a meeting of euro zone finance ministers in Malta on April 7, the official said.

It was not yet clear how much progress had been achieved.

Sources told Reuters this week that Greece and its creditors had reached a broad outline of agreement on some key labor issues.

Athens had also agreed to cut pension spending and to lower the current tax-free threshold to about 6,000 euros, after its current, 86-billion euro bailout expires in 2018.

Slashing the market share of state-controlled Public Power Corp (PPC) <DEHr.AT> through the sale of coal-fired units was also under discussion.

These measures were aimed at convincing the IMF to participate financially in the bailout. EU countries, including Germany, want the Washington-based fund on board, to add credibility to a program which has been a difficult test for European governments.

Greece also said on Friday it was starting the process to hire advisers for the privatization of seven major companies in an effort to show that it is determined to stick to its bailout commitments and speed up the conclusion of the review.

The companies included PPC, in which the privatization agency holds a 17 percent stake, and the Athens International Airport, which it owns 30 percent of. A 27 percent stake in water utility EYDAP <EYDr.AT> and a 74 percent stake in Thessaloniki Water <TWSr.AT> were also included in the process.

Advisers will be hired also for a 65 percent stake in natural gas company DEPA, a 35.5 percent stake in the country’s biggest oil refiner Hellenic Petroleum <HEPr.AT> and a 5 percent share in telecoms operator OTE <OTEr.AT>.

Privatizations have been a key term of the country’s three international bailouts but have reaped poor revenues so far.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)