Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (right) listens to German Chancellor Angela Merkel before a meeting with young Greek businessmen in Athens in April 2014. [AP]
Late in the night of May 2012, after a long crisis summit by eurozone leaders, Angela Merkel walked her exhausted advisers to a quiet table at the bar of the Amigo hotel in Brussels. The aides were ready to go to bed, but the Chancellor, overflowing with her usual endurance in the wee hours, had them draw up a decision tree: a diagram retracing the consequences and reactions – domestic, European, financial, diplomatic – that could result. possible path it could take to deal with the Greek crisis.
Greece’s troubled politicians had just shocked Europe again. Early elections, called despite European reluctance, had seen Greek voters abandon established parties and turn to marginal movements of the far left and far right. After two years of austerity and economic deterioration, there was no longer a majority to support the bailout memorandum – in fact, no ruling majority. Repeated elections in June were seen as Greece’s last chance to avoid political paralysis, bank runs and exit from the euro. In Germany, sections of the political class – including Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble – had called the Greek political class reckless and incapable of reforming the country. Some in Berlin have called Greece the “infected leg” of the euro, a gangrenous appendage that had to be amputated to save Europe’s body.
Merkel’s diagram shed light on the ugly ramifications of Grexit. The risk of devastating capital flight from other countries in the eurozone periphery was difficult to quantify. The same goes for the image and position of Germany in Europe after forcing the expulsion of a country from its monetary union. Merkel did not want to go down in history like the chancellor who partially defeated the great project of European unification initiated by her political paragon, Konrad Adenauer.
But financing a Greece that was unwilling or unable to bring its deficits under control and reorganize its economy was also unpleasant. This would lead to a rebellion among its center-right lawmakers and voters. This would expose Germany to financial blackmail from other euro countries that have mismanaged their economies – including Italy, whose staggering debts have always been Germans’ deepest fear of deeper engagement in in favor of the European fiscal union.
The late-night analysis reinvigorated Merkel’s belief in helping Greece stay in the euro: yes. Yes.
She would resist the “infected legs” lobby in Berlin. But she needed a partner in Athens who would swallow Greece the bitter economic medicine Merkel needed in return for the loans backed by Germany.
Last August, Greek leader Antonis Samaras visited Berlin, aware that he had a lot of work to do to convince Merkel that he was the right partner. His record, from anti-memorandum populism to opposition to limiting the scope of the Papademos government, did not inspire confidence, and he knew it. Before heading to the Chancellery, Samaras spent hours in his room at the Berlin Hilton practicing his pitch. His mea culpa for past politics and his promise to work “day and night” to achieve the goals of the memorandum persuaded Merkel to bet on him. She soon traveled to Athens to show her support. The Grexit choir in Berlin is silent.
The summer of 2012 showed the strengths of Merkel’s leadership in Europe, and its limits. His cautious and thoughtful approach as well as his sense of patience and perspective enabled him to withstand many pressures and avoid many mistakes. But the weight it placed on reducing the political risks it faced in Germany had the effect of increasing political risks in the weaker countries on the periphery of the euro. Greece’s political dramas during the crisis largely stemmed from an impractical initial bailout that satisfied German constraints but expected too much, too soon from a debtor nation with a depressed economy, a struggling society and a weak state. The consequences nearly shattered Greek politics.
When the Samaras government ran out of energy in 2014, and once again traveled to Berlin to plead for an easier way to complete the memorandum, Merkel continued to demand full economic medicine, refusing to risk any more. of its national political capital to help it. Her red lines contributed to yet another earthquake in Greek politics, until Alexis Tsipras also learned about Merkel’s painful “yes, if” meaning.
On September 8 this year, at a public event in DÃ¼sseldorf, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asked Merkel when the burden of her long leadership in Europe had fallen most heavily on her shoulders.
Merkel’s response was immediate.
âIt was the hardest in the euro crisis, when I was very tough, from a lot of people’s point of view, in the demands on Greece, so that Greece would also get help from our go. Because I was deeply convinced that otherwise we cannot have a common currency if we do not also share a certain basic economic structure. But it’s incredibly difficult, when you see you’re asking a lot of people. It affected citizens. It was in part, in the end, as good, perhaps, for the citizens of Greece. But in this situation, there was unemployment, or people had less money because taxes had to be raised, or they lost their jobs because it was said that public administration had to be reformed. And when you have colleagues who have to carry this out nationally, who have to undergo protests, then my image was portrayed, in various ways, like the evil woman – it was difficult. “
Marcus Walker is the Southern Europe bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.