Merkel’s Greece visit to focus on post-austerity solidarity

German Chancellor Angela Merkel headed to Greece on Thursday amid tight security to show post-austerity solidarity with Athens and lend diplomatic support on a name change for neighbouring Macedonia.

Merkel's Greece visit to focus on post-austerity solidarity
Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during his visit to Berlin in December 2016. Photo: DPA

Nearly 2,000 police have been deployed to supervise Merkel's visit and authorities have banned demonstrations around the home of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, where the two leaders are set to meet.

Relations between Greece and Germany have calmed since her previous visits in 2012 and 2014, which were overshadowed by angry anti-austerity rallies.

But small protests by leftist parties and neo-Nazi groups were expected outside the no-go zone, while a police source said the authorities had opened an inquiry into five envelopes containing “a powder of unknown origin”, which were sent to regional universities this week.

Merkel's visit is seen as a chance to leave behind a fraught period caused by tough German demands for Greek austerity accompanying EU bailouts for the country during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

Greece, which left eight years of bailout programmes behind last year, has also been deeply affected by the European migrant crisis in recent years.  

Ahead of the trip, Merkel's spokeswoman Martina Fietz said she and far-left leader Tsipras would discuss “European and international” issues.

'Underline European solidarity'

Greek daily Kathimerini quoted Merkel as saying Greece had Germany's full support, saluting the “close ties” between the two EU states and NATO partners.

“I know that the past few years have been very difficult for many people in Greece. Europe showed its solidarity through three rescue programmes and supported Greece in its course of reforms towards fiscal and economic stability,” Kathimerini quoted her as saying, hailing the “great progress” made since.

SEE ALSO: Here's why Germany is so 'tough' on Greece over its debts

Thanos Veremis, professor of political history at the University of Athens, told AFP that just months ahead of European Parliament elections “Angela Merkel's visit will underline European solidarity with Greece, a success for Europe”.

Merkel is also due to hold talks with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Friday and then with New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose party is an EU Parliament ally of her Christian Democratic Union.

The leaders are likely to discuss the still thorny issue of an impending name change for Greece's neighbour Macedonia.

The former constituent part of Yugoslavia shares the name of a northern Greek province.

Tsipras and Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev have agreed in principle for Skopje to switch to “the Republic of North Macedonia”.

But Skopje lawmakers have still to vote through a move which entails four constitutional amendments and requires two thirds support in parliament.

The European Union backs a switch, which would open the door to membership in the bloc and also in NATO.

Merkel visited Skopje before last year's referendum on the change to show support.

Yet the issue remains divisive in Greece where one party in Tsipras's coalition opposes it, threatening his parliamentary majority.

New Democracy, the main opposition party, is also against the name change
and is pushing for new elections, which are officially not due before October.

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German war crime payments debated in Greece

Greece's parliament on Wednesday began a debate on a resolution to demand the payment of German war crime reparations, an issue long disputed by Berlin.

German war crime payments debated in Greece
Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras in Greece in January. Photo: DPA

“These demands are always active. They were never set aside by Greece,” parliament chairman Nikos Voutsis told reporters this week.

The chamber is expected to approve later Wednesday, with cross-party support, a resolution calling on the government of Premier Alexis Tsipras “to take all the necessary diplomatic and legal steps to claim and fully satisfy all the demands of the Greek state stemming from World War I and World War II”.

A parliamentary committee last year determined that Germany owes Greece at least €270 billion for World War I damages and looting, atrocities and a forced loan during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Reclaiming war reparations has been a campaign pledge by Tsipras since 2015. He faces multiple electoral challenges this year, with his party trailing in polls.

'Historical responsibility'

During a visit to Greece in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country “recognised its historical responsibility.”

SEE ALSO: Merkel says Germany recognizes responsibility for Nazi war crimes in Greece

“We recognize our historical responsibility. We know how much suffering we, as Germany in the time of Nazism, have brought to Greece,” she said.

In 2014, ex-president Joachim Gauck had also sought public forgiveness in the name of Germany from relatives of those murdered by the Nazis in the mountains of northern Greece.

But when it comes to actual payments, the German government has always insisted that the issue was settled in 1960 in a deal with several European governments.

Germany's government spokesman Steffen Seibert reiterated Wednesday that “the reparation issue is judicially and politically settled”. 

He said Berlin is doing “everything it can so Greece and Germany maintain good relations as friends and partners”. 

During the Greek economic crisis, there was further tension in Athens over draconian EU austerity and bailout terms seen to be imposed by Berlin hardliners.

Relations have improved over the last three years after Tsipras' government endorsed conditions linked to satisfying its creditors.

Tsipras and Merkel also worked closely on finding common ground on migration and Balkans security.