In the fall of 2014, the conservative government of Antonis Samaras ran into a deadlock. The review of the Greek program remained incomplete and political time was running out. Berlin and the International Monetary Fund had reached the conclusion that the Greek premier’s ability, if not willingness, to push the reforms had come to an end. They believed that SYRIZA would emerge as a pro-European, truly reformist force, or that it would be forced to compromise. The rest is history.
During that crucial period, Samaras had one last meaningful discussion with Angela Merkel in Berlin. The German chancellor is said to have listened carefully as the Greek politician asked for a softening of the review criteria so that the process could be wrapped up ahead of the presidential election and talks on the Greek debt. According to the same account, Merkel responded that she could not afford to spend any more political capital on Greece. She said that the Greeks would also have to convince her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, on that one. Samaras’s advisers could not be sure if Merkel meant what she said, or if she was simply playing the “good cop, bad cop” game. For some reason, no effort was made to persuade Schaeuble.
Today the Greek government is faced with a similar, only more risky situation. For on top of the pending review, it has to deal with an unprecedented migration crisis. For the first time in recent years, Europe is deeply divided and is refusing to simply follow the German chancellor on the big issues.
Also, Merkel does not not enjoy the same leverage she did until not so long ago. She has found herself backed into a corner because of her response to the refugee crisis. Schaeuble, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying a cozy state of immunity. He is giving Merkel no more support than is necessary and his popularity remains strong. I assume that if she was having the same conversation with Tsipras today, she would claim that it is not up to her to ease demands on
Greece or press for a fresh loan on different terms. She would most likely say: “We are staying out of the negotiations. It is up to the Institutions.”
In a way, Merkel is now Greece’s biggest ally against shutting down European borders. However, she is faced with local elections, the rise of euroskepticism and public fatigue. Schaeuble has not given up on his ambitions. He would like to see Greece reach the point of asking itself whether it is worth staying in the euro. Last year, it was stopped by Merkel (although she had her own doubts). No one knows what will happen if Greece reaches a new impasse now or in the summer.
The irony is that Tsipras has to rely on Merkel to stay in the game. I sometimes imagine him giving a speech saying, “Don’t go, Madame Merkel.”