BRUSSELS (AP) — European finance ministers moved towards granting Greece the latest installment in its bailout program Monday after international debt inspectors pushed the cash-strapped country to pick up the pace of much-needed reforms.
Greece's creditors — the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund — said that while the country's reform program remained largely on track, it was moving too slowly. More needed to be done, the troika said, including firing thousands of people from the bloated civil service. But they added that the Greek authorities have pledged to get the austerity process back on track.
Experts from the group of creditors recommended the country should be given the next rescue payment. Finance ministers from the 17 European Union nations that use the euro were studying the latest review of Greece's economy by its creditors and debating whether to give the final approval at a meeting in Brussels on Monday evening.
After years of overspending, Greece nearly went bankrupt and is now surviving on rescue loans. To ensure that the government keeps up with the reforms it promised in exchange for 240 billion euros ($309 billion) in bailout loans, its creditors turn over the funds slowly — and only after rigorous assessments of the country's progress.
As he arrived in Brussels, French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said he thought Greece could get its money as soon as the end of the month.
Even Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, who generally drives a hard bargain at these meetings, struck a positive note.
"I am confident that we will take another step today and that we won't have any kind of dramatic crises in Greece also in the coming months," he told reporters. "It will remain a difficult road for Greece — there I would warn against any illusion."
The exact amount to be disbursed remains unclear. Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras had said in June that the installment was expected to be as high as 8.1 billion euros. But by Monday afternoon that appeared unlikely.
Hammered by a financial crisis since late 2009 and in the sixth year of a deep recession, Greece's creditors, known as the troika, said the country's reform program remained "broadly in line" with projections. It also laid out the hope of a gradual return to growth next year.
However, it added that "the outlook remains uncertain."
The troika said "policy implementation is behind in some areas" and that the Greek authorities have said they will do more to ensure delivery of the fiscal targets for 2013-14, noting in particular efforts to restrict overspending in the health sector.
The government has also "committed to take steps to bring public administration reforms back on track," including reducing the number of civil servants, one of the measures that has been among the most contentious in Greece's reform program.
"Firing civil servants is always difficult, that is difficult in every country, certainly in such economic circumstances," said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is head of the eurogroup meeting and Dutch finance minister.
The government must put 12,500 civil servants on administrative leave by the end of the year, with the possibility of dismissal. They include 2,200 school security personnel; 3,500 members of the Athens municipal police, which will then be disbanded and absorbed into Greece's police force; at least 2,000 local government employees; 1,500 teachers; and employees of various ministries.
They will be paid 75 percent of their normal salary and be subject to dismissal if they aren't transferred to other state agencies within eight months.
Municipal workers across the country went on strike to protest the plan, while the country's civil servants union, ADEDY, called a work stoppage from noon for all civil servants in the capital, Athens.
The austerity reforms agreed in return for the loans, have included big salary and pension cuts as well as repeated tax hikes. It has contributed to unemployment, now spiraling to above 27 percent.
A public backlash has seen frequent violent protests and repeated political crises that have led to four governments in less than four years. The current government is an uneasy coalition between the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' conservatives and formerly rival socialists.
"Political unrest, instability, change of coalition: it always contributes to delays in decision making, that the process takes too long," Dijsselbloem said. "Political stability is almost the first condition for a country to get out of a crisis."
Elena Becatoros from Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.