Merkel in Athens
It is the German chancellor's first trip to Athens since the start of the eurozone crisis, and Angela Merkel is clearly unwelcome. Will her visit achieve anything?
Merkel is making her first visit to Greece since the eurozone crisis erupted – albeit for only six hours – by invitation of prime minister Antonis Samaras.
Her visit to Athens aims to reinforce Germany’s support for the PM’s latest efforts to consolidate public finances and enact structural reforms, while Eurogroup chairman Jean-Claude Juncker praised the Greek government for its performance at Monday’s Ecofin meeting. Presumably, Samaras hopes to win sympathy for some concessions on timing or substance of further budget cuts. However, the Greek people are not making Merkel feel welcome. Many in Greece consider her as the primary driving force behind added austerity measures to keep the country on track for more EU-IMF aid.
In preparation for the visit, the Greek authorities have gone above and beyond to ensure the chancellor’s safety. According to Andrew Dabilis at the Greek Reporter:
| “... the heart of the capital city has been shut down to organized rallies, and 7,000 police and snipers are on duty, steel barriers and police buses have been placed across roads around the parliament as a blockade and Athens is on lock-down with the biggest security measures since then-US president Bill Clinton visited in 1999. All traffic will be kept away from her motorcade from Athens’ international airport into the centre of the city.
“Labour unions and other groups who wanted to gather in Syntagma Square across from the parliament to protest have been banned and police have orders not to allow any gatherings or attempts at protest during Merkel’s stay.”
So, in theory, protesters shouldn’t be able to get close to Merkel. However, in reality, anti-bailout protesters have gathered around Syntagma Square regardless. Merkel’s key audience for the trip is probably German voters, wanting her to maintain a tough line as talk grows of the need for official sector creditors eventually to forgive a portion of Greece’s debts. They might not enjoy a picture tweeted by ITV’s James Mates that shows three men donning Nazi uniforms parading in the square being greeted with cheers from the anti-austerity protesters.
Could a reaction like this one have been avoided? Despite the safety measures, Alex White at JPMorgan hinted on Monday that little could be done to restrain protesters:
|“The chancellor’s visit will be policed by thousands of security officials, and will be met by a major strike, a threatened attempt to surround both the German embassy and the parliament (in reality downtown Athens will be cordoned off), as well as unpredictable provocations by the far-left and far-right. We think there is a significant chance that Wednesday morning’s newspapers will include images that will be extremely unwelcome in Germany and the broader region.”|
|“There will be particular opportunities for the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, to broaden its appeal through nationalist stunts.”|
And will anything be achieved during the visit? Not much according to White:
|“Chancellor Merkel is taking a significant political risk in travelling to Greece tomorrow, with the likelihood that the returns on her trip will be relatively small. We think investors would be mistaken to see the visit as having the potential to deliver a ‘breakthrough moment’; the region faces fundamental questions about what to do with Greece, but we don’t think the chancellor comes bearing gifts – or solutions. Her visit to Athens is primarily about political positioning, and the opportunity to clarify her position on Greece... This week’s visit is more about German domestic politics than it is about practical problem solving.”|
So far, Merkel’s visit seems to have brought little but trouble.