German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit today to debt-strapped Greece may provide a chance to ease tensions born of the economic crisis, but she looks set to receive a tepid welcome from those who blame Germany for the Greek government’s draconian austerity policies.
Her first visit since Greece’s financial crisis started almost three years ago, during which she is to meet with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, comes at a crucial time for Greece, which is negotiating a near 13.5 billion euro (US$17.6 billion) package of spending cuts with its creditors.
Auditors from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank (ECB) must approve the package before agreeing to the release a 31.5 billion euro installment of EU-IMF rescue loans that have been keeping Greek finance alive.
Heading for a sixth year of continuous recession, Greece desperately needs this tranche of aid to recapitalize banks and repay outstanding domestic debts amounting to almost 8 billion euros.
Samaras has called Merkel’s visit a “positive development” and said the chancellor would be “welcomed in the appropriate way for the leader of a major power and a friendly country.”
On Sunday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the trip “an act of recognition for the Greek government, which is under great pressure with its reform policy.”
However, others in Greece are not so pleased.
Merkel has often been singled out in the press and in street protests as carrying the blame for austerity measures that have included drastic salary and pension cuts in Greece.
The radical left main opposition party Syriza, Greece’s two main labor unions and the communist-affiliated group Pame are organizing a “warm welcome” for the chancellor to include work stoppages and street protests today.
“She is not coming for our benefit. This is to help the government impose the new barbaric measures,” Pame said in a statement.
“[Merkel] is coming to rescue a corrupt and discredited political system that is subject to her interests,” Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said at the party’s annual youth festival in Athens on Saturday.
Local media largely welcomed the visit and underlined its importance, with state television Net describing it as a “clear message of support to the country” and its efforts on Sunday.
The Kathimerini newspaper commented on Sunday that the chancellor would bring to Athens a “passport for the stabilization of Greece’s place in the eurozone.”
Yet police are on high alert and are set to take the same security measures as those adopted during the recent visit of former US president Bill Clinton, Net reported.
The economic crisis has often caused tension between Greece and Germany, fueled by the popular and often populist press in both countries.
Earlier this month, during a general strike against austerity, protesters marching past the Bank of Greece crossed out “Greece” on the bank’s sign and wrote “Merkel” over it.
The press on both sides had a field day early this summer when the two countries faced each other in the quarter-final of the Euro 2012 that Greece eventually lost.
Ahead of the much-publicized game, Greek sports media ran flashy headlines such as “Bring us Merkel” and “This is how your debtors qualify, Angela get ready.”
Berlin has often openly criticized Greece for not making good on promises of implementing structural reforms.
On Saturday, popular German daily Bild ran a photograph of a poster depicting Merkel in a Nazi uniform asking: “Is this how Angela Merkel will be greeted in Athens?”
Bild has long railed against “the Greek failure.” In late 2010, it called on Greece to “sell your islands ... together with the Acropolis.”
That same year, Focus ran a cover picture of Venus de Milo pointing the middle finger at Europe, accompanied by a headline calling Greeks the “swindlers” of the euro family.
More recently tensions appear to have calmed down, as talk of a possible Greek exit from the eurozone, a hot topic during the summer, has subsided.
In addition, the conservative Greek prime minister recently carried out a European tour in an effort to restore the country’s credibility.
The tour included meetings with Merkel in Berlin, French President Francois Hollande in Paris, as well as ECB President Mario Draghi in Frankfurt.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Friday the message she would take to Athens would be that “we want to help Greece stabilize itself within the eurozone.”
“We are doing that by massively contributing to the two aid packages that are supposed to help Greece come out of the crisis,” he said, stressing that aid was possible only if Greece stuck to the austerity cuts demanded by international creditors.
Nevertheless, he said Berlin saw greater efforts being made under Samaras.