By DEREK GATOPOULOS and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Inspectors overseeing Greece's faltering financial recovery have returned to Athens to push the country back on the road to painful reform. But as Greece's economic problems pile higher, the task appears insurmountable.
Months of political uncertainty and the spread of the eurozone's crisis to major economies such as Spain and Italy are stacking pressure on Greece's new coalition government to slash spending or face the threat of an exit from the 17-country group that uses the euro.
Greece needs to cut an additional €11.5 billion ($14 billion) in spending over the next two years to meet deficit targets and is likely to impose more pay cuts through pension and benefit caps. If it doesn't meet the deficit targets, its eurozone partners could decide to stop giving it financial aid, potentially forcing it to drop out of the eurozone.
The heads of an inspection team from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — collectively known as the "troika" — arrived this week in Athens to pick apart Greece's deficit-cutting proposals. They will return in September before making their final assessment.
Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, meanwhile, met Thursday with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Greeks had been promised some relief from the severe recession after the country won major debt restructuring and rescue loan deals this year, following another round of salary and benefit cuts. But that prospect has already faded.
Here are some reasons Greece is finding it increasingly difficult to meet its deficit targets.
Greece's economy is in its fifth year of recession, during which its economic output has dropped by about a 20 percent. Samaras has likened the period to the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s.
On Tuesday, he delivered more bad news: The economy would contract a further 7 percent in 2012, far more than the 2.8 percent predicted last year. Unemployment, originally forecast to settle around 18 percent, has reached 24 percent.
A national association representing small businesses said it expects 67,000 more companies to go bankrupt in the next 12 months.
The economic downturn is depriving the government of much-needed revenue with which to lower its deficits.
Some blame the severity of the recession on the bailout creditors' insistence on government spending cuts as a way to lower the deficit.
In the past two years, eurozone members and the IMF have granted Greece two successive rescue loan packages worth €100 billion ($121 billion) and €130 billion ($158 billion) — a higher combined amount than the country's gross domestic product — but tied it to draconian demands for fiscal reforms to cut overspending.
The main targets include cutting the budget deficit from a runaway 15.8 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 2 percent over five years, while overhauling the public sector and services and market rules, and cutting 150,000 government jobs.
Samaras has promised to halt the recession next year and gradually bring the jobless rate to 10 percent by the end of his four-year term in 2016.
Samaras may be lucky to still be in power in 2016, however, as political instability keeps undermining efforts to reform the economy and steer it back to health. Samaras' government is the country's fourth in eight months.
The previous three governments achieved little in terms of reform as infighting forced two national elections in May and June.
In a letter of resignation last week, the former head of Greece's key privatization agency said the time spent changing governments meant privatization revenues this year would reach €300 million — a tenth of the €3 billion target.
Cutbacks agreed on under former prime minister Lucas Papademos, a former ECB vice-president who served as Greece's leader for six months until May, have yet to be implemented. Plans to lighten government payrolls by firing some civil servants have stalled.
Samaras managed to eventually form a government after his conservatives sided with the traditional rival Socialists and a small left-wing party.