German Chancellor Angela Merkel will undertake what is being billed as the toughest trip of her career on Tuesday when she travels to Athens for the first time since the start of the euro crisis.
Merkel, hated by many Greeks who hold her personally responsible for their economic plight, will encounter massive protests by Greece's left-wing opposition and trade unions.
"She does not come to support Greece, which her policies have brought to the brink. She comes to save the corrupt, disgraced and servile political system," said Alexis Tsipras, who leads the opposition Syriza alliance. "We will give her the welcome she deserves."
Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, made the surprise announcement of her visit at a regular government news conference last Friday. "I say it's a normal visit because Greece and Germany are close partners within the EU and the euro zone and because we work very closely together," said Seibert.
But given the attention German newspapers were devoting to Merkel's security arrangements for the visit -- a trip to what is, after all, a European partner -- it is clear that the visit is anything but normal. Some 7,000 police drafted from all over Greece will be deployed in Athens where they will turn the government district into a No-Go area for protesters during her six hours of talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, President Karolos Papoulias and industry representatives.
Snipers will man the roofs of surrounding buildings and police helicopters will accompany her convoy on the long trip from Athens airport to the city center, media reports said. One could be forgiven for thinking she was visiting Kabul rather than a long-standing European ally.
In a commentary, Bild said that rather than hurling abuse at Merkel in the streets of Athens, Greeks should be waving German flags in gratitude for the financial assistance German taxpayers have given Greece. The Greeks, Bild remarked, should not expect Merkel to offer any new concessions during the trip. "All the German chancellor can bring the Greeks is the bitter truth: that Athens only deserves new funding if it at last does its homework."
German Left Party Chief to Join Athens Protests
The head of Germany's opposition Left Party, Bernd Riexinger, said he would travel to Athens to join the demonstration against Merkel and to hold a speech. "Merkel's visit to Athens will heighten internal conflicts in Greece," Riexinger told Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper. "I will express our solidarity with the Greek workers and pensioners who are taking to the streets to protest against income cutbacks that are threatening their livelihoods."
Carsten Schneider, a member of parliament for the opposition center-left Social Democrats, noted that Merkel had last been in Athens in 2007 and should have visited Greece more recently. "The crisis has being going on since 2009 and just giving advice from one's desk in Berlin looks bad," he told German public television channel ARD in an interview on Monday.
Members of Merkel's center-right coalition said her trip was about acknowledging and supporting their reform efforts. "The visit isn't intended to bring any presents for the Greeks," said Volker Kauder, head of the conservative parliamentary group.
Hermann Gröhe, general secretary of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, said the visit would be a "sign of solidarity" with Greece. "We support Greece on its difficult path. We want this country to make progress," he said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called Merkel's trip "a European gesture, an act of acknowledgment of the Greek government which is under great pressure with its reform policy."
"The Greek government must and will do its homework. I refuse to just write the country off. The Greeks deserve fairness and respect," he told Bild.
Little Leeway for Concessions
The visit is part of a charm offensive by Merkel aimed at improving her image in Europe, where many see her as indifferent to the hardship caused by austerity measures that she has insisted in return for aid.
Nowhere is Merkel's reputation worse than in Greece, where unemployment now stands at around 25 percent and whose economy has shrunk by a fifth since 2008. She is frequently portrayed as a Nazi in newspapers and on demonstration banners. Greek Sunday newspaper Proto Thema gave a taste of what she can expect on the streets of Athens by running the simple headline "Heil!"
Merkel sounded conciliatory last week, telling a conference of young conservatives in the city of Rostock: "Just imagine what is demanded of the people in Greece. That is not easy. And if we are good Europeans than we cannot pretend not to care."
Some German media commentators urged Merkel to make some concessions in her talks with Samaras, such as giving Greece more time to meet its austerity requirements. But her leeway is limited. Merkel faces an election next year and can't risk upsetting voters by signing Germany up to a third Greek bailout. She could face a damaging rebellion in her party in a parliamentary vote on any new aid for Greece.
Her visit may, however, repair a little of the damage done in recent months by some of Merkel's conservative allies who have been openly urging Greece to quit the euro zone.
She, by contrast, has evidently decided that a Greek euro exit would prove too expensive and too risky in terms of the potential fallout for other ailing euro zone members. Her visit, analysts say, is a sign that she wants Greece to stay in the euro.
Greece is currently locked in talks with inspectors from the "troika" of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank over budget cuts for the next two years, a condition for getting the next tranche of the current 130 billion bailout program. Athens says it needs more time to meet the conditions attached to the bailout.
cro -- with wire reports
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