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Germany's Merkel in Greece for farewell visit

October 29, 2021

German chancellor Angela Merkel is on her final official trip to a country that has not always welcomed her. Ties with Athens "went through ups and downs," Merkel said.

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, welcomes Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel before their meeting at Maximos Mansion in Athens
Merkel and Mitsotakis have enjoyed a much happier time than had been the case with previous governments Image: Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo/picture alliance

Chancellor Angela Merkel is paying a final visit to Greece before she steps down as head of the German government.

On Friday, she held talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on an array of issues, ranging from energy policy, the coronavirus pandemic and immigration to Greece's tense relations with neighboring Turkey over territorial disputes and drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean

Greece concerned about relations between Europe and Turkey

Although Merkel's visit focused much on past bilateral relations and Greece's post financial crisis development, one current topic was also discussed at length, namely the dynamics of Greece-Turkey-EU relations.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed concern over Europe's approach to NATO partner Turkey, "I fear that Western composure encourages Turkish arbitrary actions, and it is time for European principles to be turned into European policy and mainly into European practices against those who offend it," he said.  

"No one is seeking a definitive rupture in relations between the European Union and Turkey," he said, "It would not be something that would be beneficial to Europe or to Greece or, ultimately, to Turkey."

Chancellor Merkel, an advocate for dialog between Ankara and the West, said: "I believe that Turkey as a NATO member, and Turkey as our neighbor, should be treated in such a way that we make it clear that it is in our interest to have reasonable relations ... Even with disagreements that we have, for example, even on human rights issues.''

Tensions between Greece and Turkey over drilling rights in the Aegean came to a head in 2020 in a dispute that saw the neighboring countries dispatch warships to the area. In March 2020, Greece also denounced Turkey's stance on immigration after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country's borders to Europe were open and encouraged migrants to head to Greece, which was already buckling under the weight of illegal immigration to the bloc.

Caught in the crisis between Greece and Turkey

Looking back at a tumultuous relationship

After meeting Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Merkel, who has seen no fewer than eight Greek prime ministers come and go, said relations with Athens "went through ups and downs, but are based on solid foundations."

"What gave us strength during this period ... was that we always had the feeling that we belong together," the outgoing chancellor said.

Sakellaropoulou said, "there were times of difficulty and tension."

"The financial crisis that many countries of Europe faced put mainly Greece, which was called on to pay a heavy price, in a difficult position. It was an unprecedented situation ... and Greece felt — we justifiably often felt alone."

But subsequent experiences, including Germany's help during the 2015 migration crisis, had "contributed to mutual understanding," the Greek president said.

Merkel unpopular during Greek debt crisis

Merkel has not always been welcomed to Greece with open arms. Many there still see her as the woman who forced austerity on the country during the 2009 Greek financial crisis, which grew into the decade-long euro crisis.

At the time, Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble were hated figures. Germany was the single biggest lender and Merkel and Schäuble, along with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded huge budget cuts and drastic tax hikes in exchange for their support for three different international bailouts of more than €300 billion ($350 billion).

After she was greeted with mass demonstrations of Greeks waving posters showing her in a Hitler moustache in 2012, Athens banned protests during her 2014 and 2019 visits.

Protesters clash with police during Angela Merkel's 2019 visit to Athens
Although protests were banned, Greeks so reviled Merkel that they clashed with police to protest her 2019 visit Image: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

Merkel: 'Most difficult moment' 

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is one of many Greek officials who say the country has changed. And he has spoken positively about the chancellor, noting that she has a "special relationship" with Greece.

Last week in Brussels, the conservative politician said: "I think she will be the first to admit — she has already done so — that she has repeatedly asked a lot from the Greeks and that austerity went beyond what Greek society could bear. But at the same time, it was she who went against the recommendations of her ministers to keep Greece in the eurozone." 

In September, Merkel told Greek journalists that bailout negotiations had been "the most difficult moment" of her 16 years in office. Indeed the crisis wiped out a quarter of Greece's economy and sparked massive unemployment.

As Greece recovered, attitudes toward Merkel also softened. When she was welcomed in 2019 by then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — a fierce critic during the crisis years — she seemed relieved, saying "the difficulties now lie behind us."

This is an updated version of a previous article.

sri, js/rt (AFP, AP, dpa)

Greece: Edging back from the brink