POLITICS
05/28/2011 11:32 EDT | Updated 07/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Harper To Greece: Austerity Worth The Pain

(CP) ATHENS, Greece — Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought a message from Canadian politics to his Greek counterpart Saturday.

He said that sometimes, a government needs to act even if the opposition doesn't want to co-operate.

Harper arrived in Greece for his first bilateral visit as the country is being rocked by protests and political turmoil over its debt crisis and the austerity measures required to get the deficit under control.

For the past year, Greece has relied on a $155 billion package of bailout loans from other EU countries and the International Monetary Fund.

But the first round of austerity measures agreed to in return didn't ease market concerns that the Greek economy can be salvaged.

On Friday, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou failed to get all-party support on new measures, jeopardizing the next round of bailout funds from the European Union and the IMF.

But on Saturday, Harper said he's confident the Greeks will get the situation under control.

"I know from experience that it is not unusual for opposition parties to refuse to co-operate with government," Harper said.

"But governments have a responsibility to act and I certainly honour the determination of Prime Minister Papandreou and the very difficult actions he's had to take in response to problems his government did not create."

Harper said he's using the Greek situation as an example.

Accompanying Harper on the trip is Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is of Greek heritage. Clement will be in charge of making the $4 billion in cuts to government services next year as Canada pays down it's deficit.

Harper said he wanted Clement to sit in on the meetings to show him "we have nothing like the challenges faced here in Greece. He has a comparatively easy task."

Clement also signed a youth mobility agreement with Greece as part of the trip. The agreement helps facilitate work and tourist trips by young people.

But the challenges facing Greece did hit home for Harper.

He was originally supposed to stay in a hotel fronting the Hellenic Parliament but was moved to another after thousands of protesters had amassed there late Friday.

Harper came to Greece following the G8 meetings in France, where leaders discussed the global economic crisis, including Greece's dilemma.

He had said going into Athens that he was looking forward to hearing about the situation from the Greek perspective. He received a full briefing on Saturday as he visited Papanderou.

He wouldn't comment on what he heard

"We have every confidence that our Greek hosts here and our European friends will continue to deal with the matters so the global economy can continue to grow," Harper said.

There are about 250,000 Canadians with Greek heritage and several within the prime minister's circle, including Clement and newly-elected member of parliament Costas Menegakis. Both are on the trip.

They were part of a business roundtable Harper held earlier in the day with a group of Canadian and Greek executives, including representatives of Coca-Cola and Bombardier.

Harper's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, is also of Greek origin.

On Sunday, Harper will visit the village of Kalavryta, where members of Soudas' family still live.

Harper will be there to pay his respects at a memorial for the Greek men and boys rounded up and summarily killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. They included Soudas' grandfather.

The prime minister had done very little international travel prior to entering politics, but he said Saturday Greece was one of the countries that had intrigued him.

"I have always been fascinated by your country as a cradle of democracy and this was one of the first places in the world I visited in fact 34 years ago as a young man," Harper told Philippos Petsalnikos, the Speaker of the Hellenic parliament.

"And notwithstanding the challenges that we read about, I have observed the remarkable progress the country has made over the past several decades."

Later in the day, he and his wife Laureen had a chance to take in some of what Greece looked like centuries ago.

They visited the Acropolis museum in Athens and then the Acropolis itself.

As he toured the Greek ruins and posed for photos in front of the Parthenon, Harper pointed to the massive columns behind him and joked: "I should build this."

By Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press