ATHENS, Greece — Greece's prime minister and the head of the European Commission struck an optimistic note Wednesday as the country assumed the European Union's rotating six-month presidency, with both underlining how far the financially stricken nation had come in reforming its economy.
"Greece, with great sacrifices, leaves the crisis behind it," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said during joint statements with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, shortly before an official opening ceremony.
Reeling from a gaping budget deficit and massive debt, Greece has been dependent on rescue loans from other EU countries that use the euro as their currency and from the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In return for billions of euros in bailout loans, successive governments have had to impose harsh austerity measures in an effort to overhaul the country's economy. The measures have led to deep resentment among many Greeks.
Athens hopes to emerge from a grueling six-year recession in the next six months, and negotiate a landmark deal with bailout creditors to make its massive national debt sustainable.
Samaras said that during its presidency of the 28-nation bloc, Greece would focus on the issues of economic recovery, fighting unemployment and tackling security issues, including migration.
For his part, Barroso stressed that financial rescue packages do work, pointing to the success of Ireland, which managed this year to leave its own bailout program and return to borrowing on the international bond market. He urged Greece to stick to its own reforms and "not to give up."
"Programs work, and we should not waste the efforts made so far," he said, adding that he was "fully aware" of the difficulties Greece and its people were going through.
"As I said exactly one year ago, 2013 would be, and it was, the year when the European economy would start to turn the corner," Barroso said, adding that not so long ago, some were speculating that Greece would be forced to leave the euro and that the joint currency would implode.
"The very fact that we are here today, celebrating the Greek presidency ... is clear evidence that those predictions were wrong," he said.
With Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and commissioners from across the EU visiting Athens, authorities shut down roads and subway stations, and deployed riot police in the center of the city. Protests were banned for 18 hours in the areas near the presidency events, and small scuffles broke out with riot police when a few dozen protesters attempted to defy the ban.
Alexis Tsipras, head of the main opposition radical left Syriza party, was not attending the events, drawing criticism from the governing two-party coalition.