Angela Merkel in Athens: The bitter after-taste

As protestors chanted anti-austerity slogans and clashed with riot police, the German Chancellor did nothing but look after her own electoral interests.

Of course it was going to be surreal. Air raid sirens were supposed to sound at 11am, only a couple of hours before the German Chancellor arrived. Despite the fact the routine drill was cancelled the night before, the signs of a strange day were all there. Why is Angela Merkel visiting Greece now?

Merkel flew to Athens in search of momentum, leading up to German elections next September. Despite hope, or fear in some cases, that something important regarding the future of Greece and Europe as a whole was to be announced, nothing like that happened. “I am aware that the situation [in the society] is tough.” she stated during her meeting with President Carolos Papoulias. “I came here to support Greece”. But her general stance, doesn’t actually “support” this. If anything, an impression that Merkel visited the country looking for her “Thatcher moment”  is one of the things left unsaid. Since there are no laid off miners around, Greece would have to do.

Last time the German Chancellor visited Greece was in 2007, before the financial crisis blew up in our faces, back when the euro was still considered to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now the Greek economy is down the drain and European politicians are desperate to hang a “nothing to see here, move along” sign over the country. But everyone knows it is not so and can’t help but wonder: A simple meeting at the VIP lounge of the airport would do, why the theatrics that cost the Greek state almost two million euros? Why ban demonstrations from moving on all streets surrounding the parliament using a law drafted in 1971 by the Greek Junta?

A protester holds a placard of German Chancellor Angela Merkel featuring a Hitler moustache near the Greek parliament

I arrived at the demonstration that took place despite the ludicrous ban outside the parliament, at around the same time Alexis Tsipras and Bernd Riexinger (of the German party Die Linke) did. Only a few thousand people on and around Syntagma square were present before I left my house, but by the time I got there, there was barely enough space to stand.

“We will give her the welcome she deserves” the leader of SYRIZA proclaimed.

Blocks of young people stood around the main SYRIZA one, while the usual chanting took place in front of the parliament. This was all before the time Merkel actually arrived. While making my way there, I tried to count how many policemen in riot gear I encountered getting there: I couldn’t. Every alley around syntagma was crawling with them. Minutes later I was notified that pre-emptive arrests were taking place all over Athens. Official sources, at the time, placed the number between 35 and 50. Unofficial info provided by veteran reporter Vassiliki Siouti of Eleftherotypia spoke of almost 2,000.

Demonstrators march in front of the parliament building during Merkel's visit

The trouble didn’t start before 3pm, when the first tear-gas canisters fell, next to the parliament, where the police had placed an iron fence to stop the demonstrators from reaching Vasilisis Sofias, the road from which Angela Merkel would reach A Samaras’ office. Pepper spray was used to hold back the demonstrators. The game often played between demonstrators and riot police began and stones were hurled at the police who tried to break the crowd and push them towards Panepistimiou street. Before the show was over a couple of hours later, 30 protesters were hurt, twelve people have been arrested and 193 detained. Right in front of me, as I was making my way through the backstreets of Syntagma, a hand-cuffed girl was used as a human shield by riot police against stones hurled at them by demonstrators. She was then dragged by her hair, probably towards the nearby Acropolis police station. This was not an isolated incident unfortunately, as many cases of police brutality against those detained were reported throughout the day.

In the meantime, news of the joint press conference were coming in via Twitter: Merkel reminded Greeks that she hopes Greece will be able to remain in the eurozone but has to stick to reforms. Specifically, she mentioned 89 reforms Greece must enact in the next few weeks (as well as €9bn in cuts), in order for the next 31.5bn tranche in loans to be released. With protestors chanting anti-austerity slogans, Merkel offered nothing. Instead, the ideological leader of austerity supporters in Europe stuck to her guns and spoke soft words of comfort to people who’ve just had enough of that.

Angela Merkel and Antonis Samaras make a joint statement

She tried to re-assure Greeks that reforms and cuts will pay off in the long-term, while helicopters patrolled the skies above 50,000 demonstrators burned Nazi flags and called for an end to the nightmare of recession. As Megan Greene of Roubini Global Economics, an expert on the eurozone crisis, put it: “At the end of the day, Merkel's political gesture won't plug the Greek government budget gap and won't stop the economy from contracting further.” All Angela Merkel did was put on a political show to remind Greeks of their obligations, and win votes back home before departing for the Hilton hotel to meet with Greek and German businessmen and investors.

A protestor burns a Nazi flag

As I made my way back, hundreds of police officers were stationed outside the Acropolis tube station, right across the street from tourists filling the popular cafés in Makrygianni Street. A platoon was heading back towards the square, despite the fact demonstrators had scattered and Syntagma square was now occupied by police in riot gear. This, I realized, is the image of Austerity Europe. This is the image of governments who need to treat their populations like prisoners in order to stay in power. And this, is an image from the future: Leaders, hidden away from the public eye in Hilton hotel talking business with Greek and German investors, while people are sidelined, marginalized, stripped of rights and future, labelled as reactionaries who don’t know what’s good for them.

A fire burns as demonstrators clash with riot police

There’s still a heavy smell hovering over down-town Athens. Nostrils burn as they welcome the future. The bitter after-taste is but a warning of things to come.

Yiannis Baboulias is a freelance journalist. Find him on Twitter as @yiannisbab

All photographs from Getty Images

UPDATE 10/10/2012 16:30

Angela Merkel last visited Greece in 2007, not the 1990s as previously stated. The article has been updated to reflect that.

Rubbish litters the ground as demonstrators clash with riot police in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.