Merkel in the Greek beehive
I will not allow Greece to become an “unfenced vineyard,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said last Friday, meaning a place where everyone does whatever he likes. He had many reasons to say that. Last week saw one of the boldest rallies by unpaid shipyard workers who broke into the Defense Ministry complex in Athens and blocked the entrance to the General Staff building, ignoring the angry calls of the top officer, Gen. Kostarakos, to “get off of his base.” The police were caught by surprise and were late to respond.
It was also a week of rumors of imminent revelations about politicians’ corruption. A former minister’s suicide for possible corruption added to the week’s agenda.
But above all, it was a week when the “troika” remained in Athens negotiating deeper cuts on salaries, pensions and benefits amounting to some 13.7 billion euros. If not, Greece would not be able to get the 33.5 billion-euro installment of the second bailout agreement. In a most dramatic confession, the Greek prime minister told a German daily that his country could only survive until the end of November if the tranche is not released.
On Friday the climate changed miraculously. Berlin announced that Mrs. Angela Merkel, “accepting an official invitation by the Greek government,” would visit the country this Tuesday. The country, or more accurately, Samaras’ coalition government, is anticipating the visit highly. Merkel’s presence in Athens would put an end to the eurozone’s ambivalent stance toward Greece and perhaps give a green light to the Greek demand for a two-year extension for the financial adjustment of its economy, pro-government media claimed.
However, the negotiations with the “troika” on the measures, which brought the government coalition to a breaking point and the Greek people to their knees, were continuing until yesterday without agreement. Greek Economy Minister Yiannis Stournaras, together with the “troika,” were to leave Athens last night to attend the Eurogroup meeting today in Luxembourg, where the talks in Athens were to be assessed. The talks will continue even after Luxembourg. The Greek side is struggling to keep the discussion open about Greece and get a positive assessment by its lenders, the IMF, the eurozone and the ECB.
“Our target is to get the next tranche on time. We have not assured this yet, but we are close. We have to seal the measures for 2013 and 2014,” said Mr. Stournaras. The aim is the Eurosummit on Oct. 18, when Samaras hopes for a total and final settlement of the Greek problem.
Mrs. Merkel’s visit comes at this most dramatic moment. Sure, it signifies a change of climate in favor of Greece, at least in Germany; maybe they now think that a Greece out of the eurozone is more costly than keeping it in. But she will expect total commitment to the painful reforms. And it is here where the Greek government’s expectations from Merkel’s visit may be too optimistic. People are very angry. Tuesday will be a day of mass rallies in Athens declared by unions against Merkel and the new austerity package. For the first time, Merkel will see with her own eyes the impact of five years of recession in Greece. Unless, as BBC’s Gavin Hewitt, says in his Twitter message: “she will use the tunnel under the parliament or will beam in from the airport to Samaras’ office.”