ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greece’s often strained relations in recent years with Europe’s economic powerhouse Germany took center stage on Friday during a visit to Athens by outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel in as the president and prime minister of the country expressing their past grievances.
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was Merkel’s first official meeting during her visit to the country whose financial crisis has marked much of her 16-year tenure and Germany’s relations with Europe.
“There were times of difficulty and tension,” Sakellaropoulou told Merkel. “The financial crisis that many countries in Europe have been facing has put mainly Greece, which has been called upon to pay a heavy price, in a difficult position.”
Greece’s decade-long financial crisis, which began in late 2009, saw a quarter of the country’s economy wiped out and Greece nearly exited the euro, the common currency used by many members of the ‘European Union.
Sakellaropoulou said the Greeks “often felt lonely”.
Germany was the main contributor to the three successive international bailouts that Athens received from 2010 to 2018.
But the bailout loans came with conditions. The Greek economy has come under strict scrutiny and a series of deeply felt reforms have been imposed, including repeated tax hikes and cuts in pensions, wages and public spending in all areas, from health care to infrastructure.
While the Greek economy had suffered years of mismanagement and excessive spending of public money which contributed to its dire financial situation and triggered the crisis, the conditions imposed in return for the bailout were particularly harsh.
Many Greeks blamed Merkel – and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble – for forced austerity which led to falling living standards and an economic depression which saw 28% unemployment and youth unemployment surpassing 60. %.
As the country’s financial situation improved, relations with Germany also improved, as did public sentiment towards Merkel herself.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called it “the voice of reason and stability, both in Berlin and in Brussels”.
Merkel has been “perhaps unfair at times, but always decisive at borderline times,” he said.
Speaking to Merkel, Mitsotakis said that “you yourself bravely admitted asking a lot of the Greeks at a time when they were going through the turmoil of their financial crisis. But fortunately, neither blind European austerity nor cheap so-called national slogans lasted.
Merkel, during her last visit to Athens as Chancellor, acknowledged the often difficult ties, calling them “quite strong”.
She said she “knew I was asking a lot of people in Greece (during the euro crisis). On the other hand, there were very different governments in Greece that considered very different reforms possible. ”
The left-wing Syriza party won the elections in 2015 by promising to reject any conditions attached to Greece’s international bailouts. Although the government eventually accepted all the conditions set out and implemented all the reforms requested, the negotiations led to a particularly turbulent time in Greece with capital controls finally imposed to stop a run on the banks. The controls have been in place for years.
Merkel also noted that the two countries faced the challenge of the migration crisis in Europe, when more than a million people entered the EU in 2015, many of whom were fleeing the war in Syria. The vast majority crossed the Greek Islands from the neighboring Turkish coast, then moved north through the Balkans to Germany.
Merkel’s Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is expected to succeed her Chancellor, accompanied her on her visit to Athens.
“I hope relations, or rather I guess I don’t have to hope, that with a new German government, relations between Germany and Greece will also develop well,” Merkel said.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.