The metamorphosis of Greek-German relations

The metamorphosis of Greek-German relations

Public opinion plays a role in democracies. The extent to which polls influence the political decision-making process is a matter of dispute among experts. This applies to domestic politics, and also to foreign policy making. A majority of Greeks have a negative opinion of Germany. This is confirmed by several recent polls. Sentiment reached a low point at the end of 2021, when, according to one survey, a mere 4 percent of respondents viewed Germany as a friendly country. The opinion poll coincided with the end of the era of Angela Merkel at the helm of the German government. In the history of bilateral relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Greece, this era has been a period of crises.

It is noteworthy that official relations are markedly better than the sentiments on the street and in the coffee shops. Also, in recent months there has been a marked improvement in bilateral relations. A Greek journalist who accompanied President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on her official visit to Berlin last week reported an “unknown normality” and an “extended period of mutual trust.” Such accolades in the Greek press would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, at the height of the financial crisis.

Polls show that Berlin’s stance during the financial crisis, which brought Greece to the brink of economic ruin, remains the main reason for Germany’s widespread unpopularity. Moreover, three out of four Greeks believe – as of the end of last year – that Berlin is on Ankara’s side in the Greek-Turkish disputes. In both policy areas, we have seen major changes over the past year. Greece has overcome the financial crisis. Today, when citizens complain about economic problems, the scapegoat is not Germany’s finance minister but, at best, Russia’s Putin, whose war of aggression against Ukraine has pushed up prices.

Particularly striking – and the key to explaining the metamorphosis of German-Greek relations – is the shift in Berlin’s stance on Greek-Turkish relations. Whereas Berlin maintained a close – critics say too close – relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey during the long years of Merkel’s chancellorship, the government under Scholz has kept its distance. On more than one occasion, German officials have spoken out in clear terms, criticizing the aggressive rhetoric coming from Ankara and the repeated violations of Greek sovereignty in the Aegean.

This novel partisanship became particularly evident last July during German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s visit to Athens and Turkey. Chancellor Scholz also left no doubt about German solidarity during his visit to Athens in October. Importantly, Berlin does not leave it at words in the Greek-Turkish conflict, but seeks, behind the scenes, to restore the thread of communication between the two sides. Berlin’s diplomatic efforts include Cyprus in a manner unknown thus far; in recent months, there has been a substantial increase in Berlin’s diplomatic outreach in the triangle comprising Athens, Nicosia and Ankara.

During her visit to Berlin, the Greek president explicitly put on record to Olaf Scholz her “satisfaction with the frequency of high-level contacts.” The president also said that Greece “particularly appreciates Germany’s stance on the Turkish threats.” These words from the highest representative of the Hellenic Republic illustrate more than anything else the “Zeitenwende” in German-Greek relations.

Dr Ronald Meinardus heads the Mediterranean Program at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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