Europe‘s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel, flew into crisis-hit Greece on Tuesday amid tight security as thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest against the debt-laden country’s austerity programme.
The German chancellor touched down at Athens wearing a lime-coloured jacket – the same one she wore for Germany’s win over Greece at the Euro 2012 football tournament – and smiled broadly as her host, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, welcomed her with a red-carpet reception.
But before Merkel’s cavalcade even left the airport, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the capital’s central squares to denounce the woman most identified with the punitive measures blamed for record levels of poverty and unemployment.
Rocks and stones were lobbed at riot police, who were reported to have used pepper spray against protesters. As the chants of angry demonstrators echoed around Syntagma square, where Greek police estimated 250,000 demonstrators had gathered, helicopters flew overhead as one of the tightest security operations got under way.
Although the chancellor will spend barely six hours in the country, her presence has resulted in frogmen patrolling the seas, snipers guarding rooftops and an estimated 7,000 policemen, including elite riot units, securing the boulevards on which her cavalcade will pass.
“We will give her the welcome she deserves,” warned Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s main opposition leader, as he joined protesters denouncing the “architect of austerity” in Syntagma square, Athens’ central plaza. “The policies she represents are dangerous and criminal,” said the radical leftist, adding that the growth through austerity approach favoured by Berlin to resolving the nation’s debt woes were not only counterproductive but doomed to failure.
Prominent among the protesters flanking Tsipras were leading figures from Germany’s left opposition who also flew into Athens to express their solidarity for Greek workers and pensioners who have been hardest hit by relentless rounds of EU-mandated tax increases and pay cuts.
With the German media likening Athens to a “war zone”, despite Merkel’s spokesman describing the talks as a “normal visit” to an EU country, the stakes could not be higher.
For cognoscenti of the debt drama that has rocked the eurozone since exploding beneath the Acropolis in late 2009, the visit is crucial for the German leader as she gears up for general elections in September 2013.
Eager to soften her image as an austerity warmonger in the runup to the polls, the chancellor has gone on a charm offensive, speaking often of the pain she feels for the difficulty ordinary Greeks have had to endure as a result of their country’s profligacy.
But nearly three years into the crisis, with Greece engulfed in its worst recession since the second world war, the visit is also seen as being long overdue. Although German officials insist Merkel’s descent on the Greek capital should be viewed as “an act of solidarity” – and further proof of the chancellor’s desire to keep debt-stricken Greece in the family of eurozone nations – there is, among Greeks at least, little light at the end of the tunnel.
After the biggest debt write-down in the history of world finance and two bailouts worth a mammoth €240bn (£195bn), the country is not only far from being saved but slipping inexorably into social meltdown.
As Samaras tries to negotiate new budget cuts with international lenders – the price of further aid from the EU and IMF – his fragile coalition not only faces anger on the streets but a political climate that has become increasingly radicalised.
Last week the conservative leader warned that democracy might be at risk in a country that has seen the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party surge in popularity since elections in June. He appealed for Athens’s next cash injection – at €31.5bn not only one of the biggest but vital to keeping the liquidity-starved economy alive – to be made before public coffers dried up completely “by the end of November”.
But analysts say Merkel’s room for manoeuvre is limited. As she entered talks with Samaras, Greek officials repeated their hope that the chancellor would at least guarantee the next loan disbursement. But even that is far from sure. The German leader faces formidable opposition from her constituency over facilitating aid conditions for a nation often portrayed as feckless and lazy by the German press.
Instead Merkel is expected to tell Samaras that while Berlin is not about to cut Athens loose, the new round of belt-tightening – at €13.5bn the equivalent of more than 5% of GDP – and the implementation of further reforms is the only way of ensuring that Greece remains in the eurozone.