Greece Bids Merkel Bittersweet Farewell

Angela Merkel has completed her final trip as German chancellor to Greece, a country where she was not overly welcome in the past because of the strict austerity measures she backed to keep Greece’s economy afloat.

Sticks, stones, gas bombs and heated demonstrations gripped Greece on Merkel’s first visit to Athens in 2012.

But now, a decade later, the outgoing chancellor got an almost indifferent public reception, walking freely along streets bare of any public protest or threat for the European politician many people here had dubbed an enemy.

Resentment, though, was obvious, and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou tapped into the nation’s mood, bidding Merkel farewell with criticism of the austerity policies she advocated for Greece, recalling the tough times the two countries faced during Greek financial crisis. 

There were times of difficulty and tension, she told Merkel with a stern face. Greeks had to pay a heavy price. And, Sakellaropoulou said, there were many times when Greece, as a European nation, felt alone.

The decade-long financial crisis saw a quarter of the country’s economy wiped out and 1.2 million Greeks losing their jobs. 

Many Greeks expected Merkel to return to the country with an apology for the bitter policies she supported because Germany was the single largest contributor to a bailout scheme that helped keep the Greek economy from crashing.

She instead came with a strong dose of self-criticism.

“I knew that I was asking a lot of the people in Greece, Merkel said. But she cited the role that previous leftist governments played in making the implementation of those policies more difficult, adding to social upheaval at the time,” Merkel said.

The remarks scored few points with Greeks. 

Political analyst Panayiotis Lampsias explains the nation’s reaction to Merkel.

Of course, she played a pivotal role in keeping Greece in the EU, and that should not be underestimated, he said. But this self-criticism comes too late, and now years later and on her way out, Lampsias added, Merkel has the luxury of being able to make such remarks.

In Greece’s post-crisis era, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reassured Merkel that the country would stick to fiscal discipline but not what he called, “blind austerity.”

Greece, he said, is no longer a source of crisis but a modern European state striving for a better future within the European Union.

Merkel’s vice chancellor, finance minister and likely successor Olaf Scholz accompanied her on the visit to Athens. He refrained from making any comment or offering any thoughts on whether Germany would ease up on its fiscal requirements, a concern nagging Greeks as Merkel departs the chancellorship.