Merkel-Greece: A new affection in bilateral relations


A lot has changed in Greek-German relations since the time when the greatest source of friction between the two countries was the matter of whether Greece would choose the Eurofighter as the fourth-generation jet for the Hellenic Air Force. In the period of chaos since 2009 – a time of economic collapse, a refugee emergency and a sequence of elections that saw five prime ministers sworn in between late 2011 and early 2015 – the one point of stability in Greek politics was Angela Merkel.

The German chancellor had a key say in all the major decisions affecting Greece: the creation of the rescue mechanism and the inclusion of the International Monetary Fund in the spring of 2010; the country’s public debt haircut; the decision not to push Greece out of the eurozone in the summer of 2012; the refusal to offer it further debt relief in 2014, despite the Greek government’s success in posting a primary surplus a year ahead of schedule; the proposal in July 2015 for a temporary Grexit, and the prevention of its implementation; and the European Union deal with Turkey that ended the most acute phase of the refugee crisis.

Through these interventions, Merkel often played a critical role in determining events in the Greek political scene. Her anger at George Papandreou’s decision to call a referendum in October 2011 helped seal his political fate. Her unwillingness to reward Antonis Samaras for his government’s fiscal performance removed a key hurdle from Alexis Tsipras’s path to electoral victory. Wider policies she espoused, like Deauville and the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees in September 2015, also had a huge impact on Greece.

As the guardian of Germany’s red lines on the euro – the avoidance of a transfer union at all costs, national responsibility for the necessary adjustment – she became the object of hatred for many in Greece. Leftists blamed her for causing a humanitarian crisis with the level of austerity she insisted on. Nationalists spoke of a second German occupation. Often it was hard to tell one line of criticism from the other.

Her overly cautious eurozone policy, whose main goal was the preservation of her domestic political capital, exacerbated the euro crisis and shook the monetary union. Conversely, on the refugee crisis, Merkel followed her conscience – a decision which fatally wounded her political career.

In Greece, with her formerly furious detractors having acquiesced to her economic terms, her stance on this issue paved the way for a new affection in bilateral relations. Tsipras, progressive on immigration (at least in theory) and fiscally compliant, is these days one of her favorite partners on the European scene – and the feeling is mutual. If the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) picks a Kurz-like successor, in the hope of stemming the far-right tide, the prime minister who, as opposition leader, shouted “Go back, Mrs Merkel!” will end up wishing for her return.