In Athens Visit, Merkel, Tsipras Hail Now Close Ties

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, right, shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a welcome ceremony in Athens, Thursday Jan. 10, 2019. Merkel is in Greece for talks. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS – After demonizing German Chancellor Angela Merkel for insisting on harsh austerity measures for Greeks in return for bailouts, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hailed their now-tight relationship during her Jan. 10-11 visit to the capital.

Unlike those demonstrations, the turnout was markedly smaller this time, with police closing off the downtown streets to keep trouble far away from her and banning protests, some of which developed anyway.

Many Greeks blame Merkel for the austerity they suffered for much of the past decade, which led to a sharp and prolonged recession and a bad deterioration in living standards but weary of fighting, many have given up and even lost their anger against her.

Tsipras, the Radical Left SYRIZA leader who said he would create a Leftist revolution across Europe, reject austerity and defy the country’s lenders and Merkel, has instead cozied up to her and banks that are the alleged ideological enemy of his party.

Out of the two protest marches called by fringe groups against Merkel’s visit, one by the Nazi-inspired far-right Golden Dawn party was canceled. The second, by left-wing groups, had a turnout of only 400 — a few dozen of whom peeled off from the march and briefly broke a police cordon before being driven back with tear gas.

During talks with Tsipras, Merkel highlighted how strong initial differences with his left-led government were gradually overcome over the past four years.

“Trust was developed between us, there was frankness as we kept in mind that we needed to find a solution,” she told a news conference. “I know people went through great difficulty (in Greece) and had to undergo very hard and harsh reforms.”

But she said Tsipras has to stick to more austerity and other reforms to which he agreed in the summer of 2015 that came with a third rescue package of 86 billion euros ($99.19 billion) that came after previous governments got two bailouts of 240 billion euros ($276.82 billion) he criticized them for taking before doing the same.

The last package ended on Aug. 20 of last year but Greece has been unable to return to the markets and is living off a 22-billion euro ($25.37 billion) cash buffer good enough to last into the middle of 2020.

Trailing badly in polls to the major rival New Democracy he unseated, with elections coming this year, Tsipras is trying to wiggle out out of some of the reforms and restore the minimum wage to pre-crisis levels, four years after saying he would do that.

Merkel said that, “Of course this isn’t the end of a reform period but it’s the beginning of a new situation,” that would require Tsipras to stick to his word and the reforms.

Germany was the largest single contributor to the three international bailout packages Greece received from 2010-2018 as it struggled through a dramatic financial crisis that almost saw it crash out of the Eurozone. As part of those bailouts, successive Greek governments had to hike taxes and slash pensions and salaries.

Tsipras also highlighted the detente with Berlin. “The difficulties now lie behind us, and Greece is a different country that can regard the future with greater optimism,” he said.

Merkel and Tsipras have met many times over the past few years, but this was the German Chancellor’s first visit to Athens since Tsipras became Prime Minister in January 2015 following a fiercely anti-bailout and anti-Merkel campaign. He once famously declared during a campaign speech before European elections: “Go back, Mrs. Merkel!”

Around 2,000 officers, a police helicopter and drones were deployed for the visit. Streets and subway stations were closed for security reasons.

The two leaders also discussed migration, an issue on which the positions of Tsipras and Merkel have been relatively close, as well as the preliminary name-change deal Greece has reached with neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to become North Macedonia and open the door to NATO and opening European Union accession talks.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)