I learned of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s impending visit to Greece last week, and since then find myself scratching my head in confusion.
What can she—or Prime Minister Antonis Samaras—possibly think they will gain from this?
I have no doubt that the Chancellor will express her “solidarity” with the Greek people while insisting that Greece complies with the various loan agreements and implements “structural reform.” This trip is a show of support for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, as well as a signal that Greece will remain in the Eurozone. One can only complement the Chancellor on her willingness to spend a full seven hours in Athens on this mission.
Yet there are good reasons to doubt whether this trip will in fact generate any such positive benefits. The Greek popular anger, misplaced or not, at Angela Merkel is incandescent. With Greek unemployment at 25% and a net real GDP decline of 20% between 2008 and 2012, the concept of solidarity is a largely theoretical one. The main beneficiaries of any solidarity have been Greece’s (mainly European) financial creditors, and every person living here knows this full well.
Despite draconian security measures, including 7,000 police, a ban on demonstrations, the deployment of snipers and anti-IED radio signal jamming, tomorrow will mark some of the most extensive scenes of protest and violence seen in Greece in the last few months.
Television headlines around the world will be dominated by the typical scenes of flaming molotovs, hooded youth throwing stones and police beating up civilians that we have become used to. These scenes will outweigh any platitudes about solidarity: a picture is worth a thousand words, and there will be plenty of pictures taken tomorrow.
Compounding the role of demonstrations is the fact that many political parties and individual politicians will be taking part. The GSEE Union, SYRIZA and Independent Greeks have all announced their intentions of marching in tomorrow’s protests, and presumably trying to break through to Parliament. (There are conflicting news reports about whether the demonstrators will be able to reach the Parliament or not). Smaller parties, such as Independent Greeks, which have been practically invisible since the elections, will do everything they can to get back in the media spotlight.
It is equally impossible to understand how her “support” for Antonis Samaras translates into anything realistic. The next round of austerity cuts are front-loaded and will intensify Greece’s recession and unemployment, as they involve further cuts to pensions, healthcare spending, public sector salaries, and others, as well as higher taxes. Front-loading the EUR 13.5 billion in cuts will also result in another 4-5% decline in GDP in 2013 in their own right.
We can therefore expect the opposition parties to start their next electoral campaigns with photos of Samaras smiling at Merkel, with the title “Germany’s Puppet” underneath them. Rather than supporting Samaras, Merkel’s presence will be interpreted as a visit by the paymaster to the pawn, coming as soon as it does before yet more austerity cuts. The main beneficiaries of this visit will not be Samaras, but SYRIZA and possibly Golden Dawn.
Another intended “beneficiary” of a Merkel visit is the international financial sector. Perhaps Germany feels that a Merkel announcement that “Greece will stay in the Eurozone” will part the metaphorical waters and allow sovereign lending to resume. This is nonsense. Repeated Troika interventions have turned the Greek economy into a basket case with no hope of rapid recovery or debt sustainability. Having been steam-rollered in PSI, there is no way the private sector will resume normal lending operations to the Greek government for at least 5-10 more years. And rightly so.
Perhaps another [unstated] reason for the visit is an attempt to show that she is genuinely interested in Greece and the European ideal. Yet this occurs after years in which she has repeatedly mentioned the Greek “bottomless pit” and “lazy workers” who “don’t work hard” and “retire early” (all of which have been proven statistically false) in political rallies and media interviews in Germany. These statements have been carried worldwide by Bloomberg, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and others. One statement to the contrary is hardly convincing. And given that other stars in the German political firmament continue to say the same things, it is an empty gesture.
Visiting Greece at this time is similar to throwing oil on the fire. It gives the opportunity for extremist political opinions to become all the louder, while offering nothing of substance which would change either daily life or the debt situation. Together with similar events occurring across the Eurozone, it merely reinforces a popular narrative.
This reminds me nothing so much of another “personal” Merkel initiative: her promise to campaign in the French presidential elections together with Nicholas Sarkozy, which made even less political sense than this visit.
I can only pray for moderation tomorrow; I await the all-too-predictable TV footage for sure.
© Philip Ammerman, 2012
“You are very amiable, no doubt, but you would be charming if you would only depart.”