Even if German Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to budge on her country’s insistence on its position with Greece, she probably couldn’t— unless she is prepared to face a backlash and possibly even lose her position from a revolt within her own coalition, not to mention German voters.
The mounting German anger after the Greek referendum on Sunday is Merkel’s biggest challenge. Merkel now needs to decide— is she a German chancellor, or the leader of a united Europe? The balancing act can’t be easy as she struggles to hold together its fractious and arguing members while preserving her domestic standing with those who elected her. She does not want to be blamed for a sudden Greek exit from the euro zone, but giving away too much to the Greeks would cost her at home.
The mass-circulation Bild daily this week urged Merkel to be “an Iron Chancellor” in her dealings with Greece, depicting her with a Prussian spiked military helmet. “Today we need the Iron Chancellor: No new billions for Greece!” read the headline of Germany’s top-circulated newspaper, accompanied by a doctored image of Merkel sporting a spiked helmet of the kind worn by Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century leader who conquered Europe to build the German empire.
News magazine Der Spiegel meanwhile warned that Merkel could become the leader on whose watch Europe started to crumble. Its stark cover shows Merkel sitting on toppled Greek columns, with the headline “The Rubble Woman”.
Merkel has repeatedly rejected proposals that insist on debt relief for Greece. The tough approach, according to an article in The Washington Post “aligns well with Germany’s broader attitudes toward rules and predictability. Germany is a nation where jaywalking is rare, even when streets are clear of cars, and where most subway stations use the honor system, operating without turnstiles.”
The adherence to rules is such a key tenet of life, according to The Washington Post story that “many Germans say they would rather send humanitarian aid if Greece goes bankrupt than forgive its debts and risk breaking the covenant that when money is borrowed, it must be repaid.”
“Of course we do not want to abandon the Greeks, but they do not have to be a member of the euro zone in order to receive help,” said Christian von Stetten, a lawmaker from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, summarizing an increasingly prevalent view in Berlin.
Rare mention is made of German debt relief in the 20th century and a flurry of “look in the mirror” articles and open letters sent to Merkel and the German people, including a bold letter to Merkel penned by some of the world’s top economists reminding Germany of their own history of breaking debt rules and being forgiven.
Relations between Greece and European superpower Germany have been strained for years— everything from calls for reparations, to media portrayals of German leaders as Nazi commanders and blood-suckers have gone unchecked in Greece, with the government feeding and sometimes fueling the growing Greek-German split.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras— in one of his first official actions upon his election, paid his respects to a memorial dedicated to Greek freedom fighters who were massacred by Nazis during World War II. The government also sanctioned a video that ran throughout the Athens subway system outing its demands against Germany— old World War II wounds that haven’t been forgotten in a nation whose population still remembers massacres and atrocities committed by Nazi German troops more than seventy years ago. The government has openly accused Germany of playing tricks to avoid reparations.
And anti-German fervor rages in Athens streets— and is quickly picked up by German media and spread across German social networks that adds to the strained relationships.
“He’s been sucking your blood for five years,” said a poster bearing German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s image that popped up across Athens last week ahead of the referendum. “Now tell him NO.”
Back in Germany, Merkel’s problem is that the referendum appears to have moved popular opinion in Germany even further against Greece. Almost all of Germany’s newspapers reacted to the landslide “No” vote with a mixture of anger and bewilderment.
News network N-TV screamed: “Are you mad?”
Even the moderate left-wing daily “Süddeutsche Zeitung” offered no sympathy for the Greek people’s decision, writing, “The shrill ideological screaming of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has thrown his country into a triumphant chaos. But what exactly is the majority there celebrating?”
The financial daily “Handelsblatt” was equally unforgiving. “The Greeks’ ‘No’ to the reform conditions does not strengthen their negotiating position,” it wrote. “No one wants to support a state where the loaned money simply drains away. In reality, only a Grexit will help.”
News magazine “Der Spiegel’s” typically provocative new cover – which went to print before the referendum – distilled just how definitive the crisis has become for Merkel: “If the euro fails, Merkel’s chancellorship fails,” it read, above an image of the chancellor sitting on a pile of Greek ruins in a devastated wasteland.
While France appears to be splitting openly with Angela Merkel’s position, pulling the rope towards a united Europe that will solve its problems as one— German public opinion, politicians on all sides of the spectrum and the media, pulls on the other side of the rope.
Thus far, Angela Merkel has held onto the rope, moving more towards her domestic pressures. But the pro-European, anti-Grexit voices are pulling Ms. Merkel just as hard.
Time will tell who will win the tug of war and whether Angela Merkel will become a German hero, or the Queen of a United Europe.