Angela Merkel’s term of office ends at a time when the European Union is considering a new approach to the economy and the welfare state, contrary to the doctrine that the German chancellor imposed on the eurozone, especially on the most vulnerable states, during the years of the crisis.
Today, all the factors that brought austerity memoranda to countries with budget deficits and debt issues are unthinkable. And all the factors that divided us at our first meeting in 2015 are unavoidable in the face of the pandemic crisis.
Angela Merkel became chancellor at a time when Germany had emerged from the 2000 financial crisis, taking advantage of its trade surpluses and, to a large extent, of the European South’s overconsumption. She consistently avoided any discussion on this pre-memoranda Greek-German economic relationship, no matter how many times we reminded her of it, both I and other Greek prime ministers.
I would like to mention – as particularly interesting and of reference value – what was discussed during the period of the European economic crisis and of our difficult cooperation, at our first and last official bilateral meetings. Because it vividly highlights her contradictions: on the one hand, her attempt to consolidate German hegemony in the eurozone and to morally legitimize the German stance by invoking objective rules and “necessary reforms advocated by the institutions”; on the other hand, her attempt to maintain the EU’s cohesion and to consolidate the image of a European Germany open to dialogue.
We confronted each other at an extremely critical juncture of the eurozone crisis, when German austerity policies had not only led Greece into a deep social crisis and an economic deadlock, but had also jeopardized the EU’s cohesion, with the North and South being divided. In this context, with the eurozone talks and our conflict – especially with the International Monetary Fund – as a springboard, I had focused on the effort to ensure coordination, especially with France and Italy, to support Greek positions against austerity policies. On March 16, 2015, the German chancellor called me to invite me to Berlin. I clearly remember her words: “It is better to talk to each other than to talk for each other through third parties.” I told her I agreed, as long as she understood that the government has changed and that the Greek people voted for SYRIZA to fight for their interests – not just to talk.
The meeting in Berlin was difficult and we basically agreed on which (many) issues we disagreed. After the talks were concluded, she told me in private, “Know that despite our disagreements, I will do everything I can to help find a solution, and at any time I will be available to discuss the difficulties.” I replied that I would use this to overcome the difficulties that would arise in the Eurogroup. We both felt that, precisely because our positions were leading to conflict, it was even more important to maintain a code of communication based on honesty, straightforwardness and a level of mutual respect.
In the press conference that followed, I stated our positions almost harshly, but I expressed my unequivocal objection to the Spiegel cover showing Merkel with Nazi soldiers on the Acropolis. I stressed that it was extremely unfair for the chancellor, but also for Germany and the German people, to be subjected to this untrue parallel.
Much later she confided to me that this clear position helped build an honest and sincere communication, despite the extremely difficult moments that followed during the negotiations for an exit from the bailout program, but also during the refugee crisis.
Almost four years after that first official contact, on January 11, 2019, the German chancellor was visiting Athens and we had the opportunity to speak more frankly than ever at the dinner I hosted for her in Piraeus.
Greece had emerged from the bailout programs and was settling its debt. It had returned to growth, and unemployment had dropped significantly. At the same time, we had faced, along with Germany, the worst European refugee crisis since World War II, and we had resolved the Macedonian dispute.
We talked about Europe after Brexit and she stressed how important it is to support the EU and find “European solutions,” as with the Prespes agreement. At one point we had a long look back at the events of the Greek crisis. I directly asked her why she made what I consider to be the biggest mistake of her leadership, in relation to the financial crisis: why she backed the involvement of the IMF in the European economic programs when she herself supports “European solutions.”
True to her contradictions, she replied that a level of strictness in respecting the rules – which could not be guaranteed within the European family – was required. We needed a “foreign” institution outside EU to enforce it.
I retorted by highlighting what I saw as the tragic consequences of this choice.
During the financial crisis, Angela Merkel consolidated Germany’s hegemonic role, advocating that the driving force of the EU should be a strong monetary union based on the implementation of neoliberal austerity policies, particularly at the expense of the economically weaker member-states. It was this strategy, however, that undermined solidarity in Europe, reinforced the national entrenchment of member-states and led to a diplomatically weak EU at a time of great geopolitical change.
This EU paved the way for those who supported Grexit, for those who supported Brexit, and of course for the rise of the far right.
When Merkel strongly advocated a more humanitarian management of the refugee crisis, or the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, this was the EU she found herself up against.
Therefore, her support for the Next Generation EU recovery instrument in the face of the health crisis impact, as well as her support for European policies that she herself rejected a few years ago in relation to the eurozone crisis, is a positive turn in her term of office, and an extremely important contribution to her legacy.
It may be ironic, but this latest initiative of hers is today an opportunity for progressive European forces in our common effort to achieve a very different Europe to the one Angela Merkel leaves behind.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s main opposition SYRIZA party, was the country’s prime minister from 2015 to 2019.