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.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide