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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear