Greece, Germany turn page as Merkel pays final visit

Greece, Germany turn page as Merkel pays final visit

ATHENS (AFP): Greece and Germany will bring down the curtain on a frequently difficult chapter in relations when Angela Merkel on Friday embarked on her final visit to Athens as chancellor. Meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Merkel said relations with Athens “went through ups and downs, but are based on solid foundations.”

“What gave us strength during this period… was that we always had the feeling that we belong together,” the chancellor said through a translator. German financial rectitude never sat well with Greeks, who made both Merkel and her then-finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble the target of their anger as the country was buffeted by the financial crisis post-2008 that led the European Union to impose tough austerity measures. Sakellaropoulou — a former top judge who ruled on some of the bailout cuts — told Merkel that Greece had been called to “pay a heavy price” and at times had felt “justifiably alone” among EU peers.

But subsequent experiences, including Germany’s help during the 2015 migration crisis, had “contributed to mutual understanding,” the Greek president said. “One of the most hated women in Greece” was how German tabloid Bild described Merkel as she faced angry protests on a visit to Athens in 2012. Looking back in September, Merkel conceded that “the most difficult moment of my term was when I asked for so much from Greece.”

Starting in 2010, Merkel began to urge Greece’s then Socialist prime minister, George Papandreou, to implement tough austerity measures to cut burgeoning public deficits. The Greek government agreed to the painful budget cuts and tax increases in return for 300 billion euros (now $370 billion) in international bailout funds. Pensions were slashed and the minimum monthly wage fell to less than 600 euros and a wave of privatisations was set in motion.

In addition, staffing levels in public services and hospitals were reduced and there were shortages of medicines and other material. At the height of the crisis in 2012, Merkel faced protesters brandishing banners with Nazi swastikas and depictions of her as a Hitler caricature.

After leftist radical Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister in January 2015, tensions became almost palpable. Months before he became leader, Tsipras had memorably told Merkel to “go back”. By this time, Athens was facing being kicked out of the euro, but finally bowed to pressure from its creditors and agreed to fresh austerity measures. As she bows out of office after 16 years, Merkel’s stock remains low in Greece. A Pew Research poll conducted in 16 different countries found that, in Greece, only 30 percent of people had confidence in her, compared with an average of 77 percent elsewhere.

Current Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last week in Brussels that Merkel “will be the first to admit, as indeed, she already has, that she asked a lot of the Greeks, on several occasions and that austerity went beyond what Greek society could bear.” For Alexander Kritikos, at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Merkel’s farewell visit to Athens “is an important signal indicating that the very difficult past years of economic crisis in Greece can now be considered as well on the way to being successfully concluded.” He said that the German leader had been able to establish amicable relations with the current conservative Greek government which “finally signifies normality” returning to ties between the two countries. The visit “marks a turning point for Greece which has advanced out of the crisis,” said a Greek government source.

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