Merkel admits Greeks paid heavy price during debt crisis

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday ended her final official visit to Athens by acknowledging that Greeks had paid a heavy price with austerity policies imposed to resolve its debt crisis.

Chancellor Angela Merkel meets her Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel meets her Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Petros Giannakouris

Greece faced a rolling financial implosion from 2009, and Merkel and her ministers demanded huge budget cuts, civil sector layoffs and drastic tax hikes in exchange for their support for bailouts of more than 300 billion euros.

At the height of the crisis in 2012, she was greeted by protesters brandishing images showing her with a Hitler moustache, with German tabloid Bild describing her as “one of the most hated women in Greece”.

“I’ve always stressed my awareness of the impositions and challenges that the Greek were faced with related to the euro question,” Merkel said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

But the chancellor insisted that the adjustment would have been less brutal had Greece and several other EU states undertaken key reforms during times of prosperity.

READ ALSO: An era ends – How will Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?

Der Spiegel magazine wrote on Friday that the Greek crisis was “a period of hysteria” where EU solidarity began to fray.

Greece admitted in 2009 that it had massively underreported its public deficit, leading to a panicked sell-off of government bonds and rising costs of borrowing that spread to several other eurozone countries.

“I think we were all very shocked about the susceptibility of the euro for external speculation,” the chancellor admitted Friday.

She said the Greek-German relationship had always had a “good basis” but that it had gone “through difficult times during my tenure”, vowing to visit Greece again as a private citizen

 ‘Voice of reason’

Mitsotakis said on Friday that the Greece of today was “no longer a source of crises and deficits”.

He called Merkel “the voice of reason and stability” and pointed out that she had gone against the advice of her ministers during a turbulent 2015 and “refused to ostracise Greece from the eurozone”.

Starting in 2010, Merkel began to urge Greece’s then Socialist prime minister George Papandreou to implement  austerity to cut burgeoning public deficits.

Pensions were slashed, the minimum monthly wage fell to less than 600 euros and a wave of privatisations was set in motion.

In addition, staffing levels in public services and hospitals were reduced and there were shortages of medicines and other materials.

READ ALSO: Merkel, the eternal chancellor, gets ready to leave the world stage

‘Go back’

After leftist radical Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister in January 2015, tensions became almost palpable.

Months before he became leader, Tsipras had memorably told Merkel to “go back”.

Greece was on the verge of being kicked out of the euro at the time, but Tsipras finally submitted to pressure from its creditors and agreed to fresh austerity measures.

Tsipras wrote in Die Zeit news magazine last month that “honesty” had created “the building of trust” with the German chancellor despite their political differences.

Merkel worked with eight Greek prime ministers from across the party spectrum, including technocrat PM Lucas Papademos, a former European Central
Bank vice-president who survived a 2017 letter bomb attack.

Merkel had been the intended recipient of a similar explosive device sent by a Greek far-left group in 2010. It was intercepted at the chancellery and deactivated.

As she bows out of office after 16 years, Merkel’s stock remains low in Greece.

A Pew Research poll conducted in 16 different countries found that, in Greece, only 30 percent of people had confidence in her, compared with an average of 77 percent elsewhere.

For Alexander Kritikos, at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Merkel’s farewell visit to Athens “is an important signal indicating that the very difficult past years of economic crisis in Greece can now be considered as well on the way to being successfully concluded.”

He said that the German leader had been able to establish amicable relations with the current conservative Greek government which “finally signifies normality” returning to ties between the two countries.

The visit “marks a turning point for Greece which has advanced out of the crisis,” said a Greek government source.


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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.