Berlin: German lawmakers approved a hard-won bailout extension for Greece Friday in a move Germany`s finance chief called "not easy" but necessary, lifting the last hurdle to keeping a crucial lifeline open to Athens.
Greece`s left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras welcomed the German vote as "a political act of common sense and democracy", pledged to get to work on reforms, and suggested it was a victory for his anti-austerity cause.
He promised that now his month-old government would "start working hard, in order to change Greece within a Europe that changes direction".
The four-month bailout extension for Greece, approved by eurozone finance ministers Tuesday, averts a potentially calamitous end-February deadline that could have seen Athens default and exit from the euro.
With worsening Greek economic data heightening the pressure, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had vigorously urged MPs to support giving Athens the additional breathing space.
"I`d like to ask parliament, each lawmaker, not to reject the request by the ministry of finance, which wasn`t easy for me either, because this would do great harm to our people and our future," Schaeuble told parliament.
Schaeuble, who has traded barbs with Athens in recent weeks, sought to reassure lawmakers Germany would not have to stump up "new billions" or change the bailout conditions but merely grant "more time to successfully conclude" the plan adopted for Athens in 2012.
As expected, the extension won overwhelming support in the lower house where Chancellor Angela Merkel`s left-right coalition has a commanding majority.
While Schaeuble described the extension as an act of "solidarity" toward an EU member in need, Tsipras said that "Europe has now recognised that Greece has turned a new page".
"Greece has overcome a difficult obstacle," he told Euronews in an interview.
"This is the time for the reforms that our country needs and which no government ever sought, because there were commitments with powerful interests."
He vowed that his "government of social salvation" will start "the relentless effort to recover fiscal and social justice and, at the same time, to increase public revenues".
This would include ensuring all Greeks pay their share in taxes, building an effective public administration. He also promised meritocracy, transparency, "social sensitivity" and the "collapse" of cartels.The new Greek government has walked a fine line between pledging to meet the demands of international creditors and maintaining the support of voters who swept them to power on promises of ending years of hated austerity.
An anti-government protest in Athens, following the deal Tuesday with eurozone ministers for the bailout extensions, deteriorated into street violence Thursday.
In another protest Friday evening, around 7,000-8,000 people demonstrated outside parliament at a rally organised by the KKE communist party, police said, as Tsipras chaired a cabinet meeting inside.
On Friday the government faced more bad news when official data showed Greece`s economy shrank by 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, more than previously thought, and the first quarter-on-quarter contraction since the country exited a six-year recession last year.
With a more than 1.5-billion-euro ($1.7-billion) repayment to the International Monetary Fund looming in March, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis acknowledged that "at this moment the coffers are empty".
Greece`s debt of 320 billion euros is equivalent to 175 percent of its annual economic output.
To secure the extra time for its bail-out lifeline, Tsipras`s government has agreed to refrain from one-sided reform rollbacks and published a list of proposed reforms focused on tackling tax evasion and corruption and improving government efficiency.
But Varoufakis on Friday told Antenna TV that the deal sealed after gruelling negotiations with creditors was worded in a "deliberately" vague way to ensure its approval by European parliaments.
The mixed message has fanned scepticism about Greece`s ability and willingness to pay back the money, especially in Germany, Europe`s biggest economy and effective paymaster.
Seventy-one percent of Germans doubt that Athens will implement the savings and reforms it has announced, a poll for ZDF public broadcaster showed Friday.
Schaeuble starkly warned this week that Greece would not receive "a single euro" until it meets the pledges of its existing 240-billion-euro ($270-billion) bailout programme.
Top-selling tabloid-style newspaper Bild fanned public sentiment with a front-page headline Friday that said "Bild readers say Nein (no)!".
It published photos of readers holding up signs that read "Nein -- no more billions for the greedy Greeks".
Merkel has said the bail-out programme extension is just a "starting point" and that Berlin is under "no illusions" about the challenges ahead.