The hoopla in the media about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 6-hour stay in Greece, and the Greeks’ visceral reaction to her, made it look as if her visit actually meant something—that it would change the world for the better, would tweak it in some manner, or at least would reveal a promise to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Every minute was examined at under the microscope. “The Germans,” it was noted, for example, as the plane landed at 1:20 p.m., “arrived ten minutes early.”
So when an acquaintance of mine, who lives in Southern Greece, had dinner with a ranking official at the Bank of Greece, the discussion inevitably came around to the Troika—the bailout and austerity gang from the EU, the ECB, and the IMF—and how Greece should send them packing. “Of course,” the central banker said, “it would help considerably if we actually had a functioning government these past 182 years.”
Athens was prepared for her. Both sides. Police had designated a “red zone” where demonstrating and loitering were prohibited. The Parliament, the prime minister’s mansion, and the presidential mansion were sealed off. Some metro stations were closed, some buses and trolleys were pulled out of service. Water cannons, 7,000 police in riot gear, crowd-control fences… it was all there.
As were 80,000 protesters—or 60,000—who’d been seething for days. It wasn’t just Merkel’s presence on their soil, but also the restrictions on their constitutional right of assembly. “FRAU MERKEL GET OUT,” a poster read. A group of school kids were taken into custody. Tear gas was used. Protestors were trying to tear down crowd-control fences. A melee broke out. Rocks flew. A Nazi flag was burned. But… “Strange thing about Greek demos is that they are part political protest, part village fete.
So why the heck did Merkel dive into this? To express “her support for the difficult reforms,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert explained on Monday, and to “emphatically” point out “everything” that still needed to be done. It was the outline of her strategy. Accomplished politician, she’d try to satisfy both sides, those who want Germany to open the wallet even more, and those who don’t want to see their money disappear into a bottomless pit.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras welcomed her at the airport. Then their motorcade took them to the Maximos Mansion, his official residence, where they chatted for an hour. They probably didn’t even try to resolve Greece’s complex problems, as the platitudes in their joint statement to the press showed.
“Europe is a common house for all of us,” said Samaras in kicking off the joint statement—he said Europe, not the Eurozone, perhaps a hint at what is to come. Though the Greeks were “bleeding,” he was “sticking to the plan.” Greece “has turned a page,” and Merkel, who’d “shown respect for the sacrifices,” had improved her “image in the international press.” So was this the goal of her visit? To improve her image?
Merkel was the epitome of understanding. Greece is in a “very difficult period,” she said, but should “finish what it has started,” otherwise “things will be even harder.” It’s about “our children and grandchildren.” Then, brutally, she pointed at the sword of Damocles hanging over Greece: “Of course, we are not the representatives from the Troika.”
The mighty Troika. It will come out with a report that had been delayed, rescheduled, and re-rescheduled. It will spell out whether or not Greece complied with the agreed-upon 89 “structural reforms.” It’s a huge report, worked on for months, a shield for politicians to hide behind, even for Merkel.
And what was the purpose of her visit, a reporter asked. “I came here to understand the situation on the ground,” she said. “Close contact leads to greater understanding. What the visit means to Greeks, I don’t know.”
So it went. No answers of any kind. They strolled to the Presidential Mansion and said hi to President Karolos Papoulias before heading to the Hilton for a meeting with business leaders from both countries. Chancellors have to bring home the bacon. They travel with a delegation of executives and meet local tycoons to do business. With privatizations on the docket in Greece, surely there’d be some sweetheart deals to be made. And by 7:18 p.m., she was waving goodbye from the door of the plane.
She’d given nothing away. Other than platitudes. No assurances that Greece would remain in the Eurozone, though it was her “hope and wish” that Greece should try. A broken record. There was no promise that the next bailout tranche of €31.5 billion would be disbursed, ever. Greece, which has been paying its bills only selectively, will run out of money entirely by the end of November, and barring a miracle, would have to revert to the drachma.
But Merkel, the quintessential political animal with an election next year, had her reasons for going to Greece. Perhaps it was a show of support for a post-euro Greece—a show she put on for her own electorate—when Germany, along with other countries, would unleash a flood development aid to get Greece back on its feet. And that would look good at home.
Awful as Greece’s GDP has been, it doesn’t do justice to the economic fiasco. Take new vehicle sales: in August, they plunged 80% from August 2008. People have stopped buying cars. And not just cars.