As Athens protests, Germany scoffs over Greece debt bailout
Protesters took to the streets of Athens on Thursday over government austerity measures. But anger is also growing in Germany at being asked to finance the Greece debt bailout.
Protestors fought with riot police, smashed storefront windows, and set fire to cars and buses as law enforcement authorities responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Such protests have occurred regularly in recent weeks over the government's cost-cutting measures in response to Greece’s ballooning national debt. Austerity steps taken so far include raising the retirement age from 63 to 65 and lowering government workers' wages 8 percent.
Anti-German sentiment has tinged the protests, since the European Union's wealthiest nation has hesitated to finance a bailout for its southeastern neighbor. Greece was further inflamed when two German legislators suggested Greece sell some of its islands to pay off its debt, and one newspaper even suggested they sell the Acropolis.
Tensions eased last week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. She said the two reached "an understanding," though their truce did little to quell anger on both sides of the aisle.
Germany's politicians and public have asked why they should be on the hook for Greece's debt. They're enraged that the Greeks have dredged up World War II memories, with one Greek lawmaker demanding Germany pay reparations for the Nazi occupation. German workers, who recently saw their retirement age rise from 65 to 67, want Greece workers to chin up, too.
"There is the impression in Germany that the Greeks are not doing enough to reform their system," says Joerg Wolf, author of the Atlantic Review, a popular blog that tracks German politics. "They rely on others to bail them out without making sufficient efforts themselves."
Tabloids fuel populist anger
The Bild newspaper – regarded here as the paper of the people – has led the populist backlash against Greece. Inflammatory headlines and editorials have run nearly every day since the crisis started, feeding directly into the rising sentiment that Germany’s responsible work, social, and business habits have supported other lazy Europeans.
"Here, nobody needs to pay a 1,000 euro bribe to get a hospital bed in time," the newspaper wrote in an open letter to Papandreou.
While some German politicians have suggested Greece sell islands or art to raise money, Bild told Greeks to wake up earlier, work harder, and quit lying about the state of their finances.
The euro has dropped steadily in value since the crisis began. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German of Greek heritage who serves in the European Parliament, says fear that a country like Greece could sink the euro is behind Germany’s growing anger.
"After 1945 … the Germans developed a quasi-patriotism around the deutsche mark," says Chatzimarkakis, who has been a key player in talks between Berlin and Athens. "Our soccer team and the deutsche mark were all we were allowed to be proud about. The Germans sacrificed the deutsche mark for the euro and were promised it was going to be stable, more stable than the deutsche mark."
Crisis shakes confidence
Both Chatzimarkakis and Mr. Wolf said that inflammatory rhetoric overlooks the eurozone benefits for Germany. The eurozone has expanded German export markets, which in turn strengthened the German economy and made Germany.
"Germans owe their reputation as an import-exporter to the eurozone," Chatzimarkakis said. "German products are everywhere in everyday European life."
But Wolf warned that a prolonged crisis in Greece – which could lead to a spread of default worries to heavily indebted states like Spain, Portugal, or Italy – and the continuing decline of the euro could have long-term effects on the German public’s attitudes.
"There is a concern that Greece is like [the failed US bank] Lehman Brothers," he says. “If the crisis gets bigger and starts to include other eurozone countries, it would have lasting, negative repercussions on the German attitude about Europe.”