German president in Athens to stress solidarity | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 05.03.2014
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German president in Athens to stress solidarity

Germans and Greeks were once close friends and partners within the EU - prior to the euro zone crisis. German President Joachim Gauck is now traveling to Athens to offer encouragement to the debt-stricken country.

German President Joachim Gauck embarked Wednesday (05.04.2014) on a three-day visit to Greece. The centerpiece of his trip is set to be a speech on European politics at Athens' Acropolis Museum. The president will also take part in talks to encourage Greeks to continue with the difficult reform process on the way to overcoming the country's debt crisis.

But Gauck is sure to face the frustrations felt in Athens because of the policies espoused by Germany and the European Union. Many Greeks criticize the conditions that were coupled with EU aid packages to their country, blaming those stipulations for Greece's recession and high unemployment.

Just eight years ago, opinion polls showed Greeks held Germany in the highest regard among EU countries. Germany was traditionally Greece's largest trade partner until it was knocked from the spot by Italy in the course of the economic crisis. Although Germany still holds a major part of Greek debt, Greeks now tends to view Berlin as a merciless austerity driver and stumbling block to their own prosperity.

It's no wonder then that books about Germany are hot sellers in Greece's otherwise troubled publishing industry. A typical new release came from popular economist Makis Andronopoulos under the title "The German Syndrome." The author explains the title as such, "I'm referring to a traditional syndrome of power demonstration that has increasingly been on display in recent years - that is, after the country's reunification and its economic upturn."

President Gauck shakes hands with Greek President Papoulias at a meeting in Berlin

President Gauck (left) met Greek President Papoulias in 2013

Andronopoulos said this constellation has repeatedly resulted in Europe being led down a path dictated by Germany, and he cites the recent Stability and Growth Pact as one example. The economist added that the intergovernmental agreement shows Germany's influence while representing a departure from established European law.

Questionable solidarity

In return for enacting far-reaching austerity measures and reforms, Greece has received a total of 240 billion euros ($330 billion) over the last four years. From the German perspective, Andronopoulos said, this is a strong show of solidarity in accord with the principle of offering support in exchange for demands being met.

He took a different view, however, saying the money is flowing primarily to the banks that held Greek bonds - meaning the 240 billion euros have not saved Greece but instead its banking industry.

"What kind of solidarity is that if it leads Greek pensioners to have to scrounge in the garbage for food that's been thrown out?" the economist asked in frustration.

Instead, he said he would like to see US-style economic policies implemented where the focus is on growth, and he criticized what he calls Germany's incomprehensible fixation on austerity regulations.

Polls have shown that Greeks believe the long hesitation at the beginning of the crisis on behalf of their EU partners - and Germany in particular - is to blame for the severity of the country's economic crisis. Politicians who reject that view have a tough time with voters.

Thanos Tzimeros, seated against a series of bookshelves

Thanos Tzimeros is out to offer fellow politicians a dose of tough medicine

But there are some figures in politics and elsewhere who are not looking abroad for the causes of Greece's financial turmoil. Thanos Tzimeros, an entrepreneur and head of the liberal Recreate Greece party is one of them. He and his party nearly landed a sensation during parliamentary polls in May 2012. Just two months after the founding of Recreate Greece, the group captured 2.2 percent of the votes.

Tzimeros - who lived for a short time in Germany - is hoping to win a seat during European Parliament elections in May. That's in spite of the fact that he is promising voters few incentives, instead preferring to deliver what he sees as the unvarnished truth to his fellow citizens and politicians in particular.

A homemade problem?

"Greece has no one to blame but itself. We've got enough support from our European partners, which we wouldn't have received from anyone else in this difficult position," the politician said, adding that if the country had pushed through the reforms it originally agreed to, then it would already have left the crisis long behind it.

Instead, Tzimeros said, the old guard politicians have tried to win time in order to be able to revert back to their old habits.

The head of the Recreate Greece party drew rancorous headlines after he published an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which he praised her political agenda. He has complained about the ways in which Berlin has been demonized during the economic crisis, saying, "The established political system doesn't want responsible citizens, and that's why it constantly puts the blame on others."

Greek protesters hold a sign demanding Merkel leave the country

Merkel has been a frequent target of Greek protests

Reviving the topic of reparations

The economic crisis has brought historical tensions back to the surface. In 2012, Greece's Finance Ministry created a task force to investigate the possibility of reparations claims against Germany from World War II. Concrete results from the task force are not yet available, but it's known that 300,000 Greeks lost their lives due to occupiers from the Third Reich.

Additionally, the Nazi Germany forced Greece's central bank to issue credit in 1942 that was never paid back and that would today be worth several billion euros. Thus far, Germany has claimed it has already sufficiently repaid Greece for the damages, rendering its remaining claims invalid or lapsed. But Athens insists on payment, at least on paper. It's likely German President Joachim Gauck will have to address the issues stemming from his country's war history during his visit to Greece.

Greek legal experts believe there could be plausible grounds for having the forced loan paid back. For his part, however, Tzimeros said focusing on such claims is beside the point in light of the significant funds his country has meanwhile received from abroad.

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