Merkel gives support to Greece on Athens visit
by Daniel Mason
German Chancellor Angel Merkel has given her support to Greece on a symbolic first visit to the country since the onset of the economic crisis, amid tight security and widespread protests by Greeks who pin some of their blame for the plight on her. But there was no easing of the pressure on Greece to meet the terms of its bail-out.
At a press conference with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Merkel acknowledged the "many people suffering in Greece" as a result of the crisis and that the country was on a "difficult path". But she said that much more work was needed despite progress being made "on a daily basis". She described Germany and Greece as "partners and friends in Europe" and insisted she was there to listen and be informed rather than to lecture.
Samaras said Merkel's trip was a "token of proof" of Greece's progress and marked a "new stage" in the relationship between the two countries. He said the Greek people were "bleeding" but that the government was determined to stick to its pledges and ensure that Greece remains part of the eurozone.
Merkel is in Athens for talks with Samaras, Greek President Carolos Papoulias and business leaders. Samaras, leader of the centre-right New Democracy party, came to power in June at the head of a coalition with the socialist Pasok and small Democratic Left, and has been pushing for more time to fulfil the terms of Greece's bail-out. Germany is the biggest contributor to the funds set up to aid the eurozone's debt-ridden economies.
Greek authorities banned protests in parts of the capital, and 7,000 police as well as snipers and water cannon were deployed for Merkel's six-hour visit. Large-scale demonstrations and strikes went ahead in other parts of the city, with some protesters using Nazi imagery to illustrate their anger. It is the first time the German chancellor, viewed by many as the architect of austerity, has been to Greece since the crisis erupted, with the country in its fifth year of deep recession and unemployment close to 25 per cent.
Last night Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said Greece "clearly and credibly should demonstrate its commitment to fully implement the programme" by October 18. Amid constant speculation about its future in the eurozone, Greece is waiting on a long-delayed €31.5bn tranche of bail-out money with the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund still to complete a report on the state of the country's finances.
Without the aid Greece faces default in November but in a hearing in front of the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee this morning, ECB president Mario Draghi said some headway had been made. "It's quite clear that the progress at the level of undertaking the necessary policy reform has been perceptible and significant and it's also clear that more needs to be done," he said. "We see progress, we see a need for further work." The aim is to reduce Greece's debt to 120 per cent of gross domestic product by 2020.
There have been difficult talks between the coalition government and its international lenders on fresh austerity measures worth €13.5bn. However, writing in The Guardian, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the opposition left-wing Syriza party, said the conditions imposed by the troika were "devastating" the Greek people. He called for a "new plan to deepen European integration" that challenged neoliberalism and prioritised "workers, pensioners and the unemployed, not the interests of multinational companies and bankers".
"These struggles have started already and have led to the rise of left and resistance movements throughout Europe," he wrote. "They keep alive democracy, equality, freedom and solidarity, the most important values of the European political tradition. These values must prevail. Otherwise Europe will regress to a dark past we thought gone for ever." Meanwhile among the banners held aloft at today's protests were some that read: "Merkel out, Greece is not your colony" and "This is not a European Union, it's slavery".