Greek referendum exposes Merkel′s weaknesses | News | DW | 06.07.2015
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Greek referendum exposes Merkel's weaknesses

The German media may still blame the Greek government, rather than their chancellor, for the euro crisis. But the referendum has put Angela Merkel under pressure to be more proactive, and exposed her shortcomings.

The reaction from Angela Merkel's government to the dramatic referendum on Sunday was typically phlegmatic. The first priority, it seemed, was to pour cold water on Greece's hopes of a quick new deal to help the country out.

The giddy Sunday-afternoon talk of the since-resigned Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who said a deal could be reached within 24 hours, was swiftly doused in Berlin: "At the moment there is no basis for entering negotiations about a new aid program," the chancellor's spokesman Steffen Seibert said at the government's regular Monday morning press conference.

The ball, it appeared, was still very much in Athens' court, where it often seems to be: "It depends very much on what proposals the Greek government puts on the table," Seibert said.

Merkel may be stalling ahead of her trip to Paris to confer with her French counterpart and more talks in Brussels on Tuesday. But in fact, the "ball" is very much in Merkel's court too. The fact that the Greek referendum failed to remove the troublesome left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as she obviously hoped, means that the pressure on her to react has grown measurably.

"She has a real problem now," Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations told DW. "She's not leading with a grand vision, but with this pragmatic step-by-step approach. But that depends a lot on success. When you get to a situation where the problem isn't solved, but is getting more profound, you don't have a longer-term idea you can refer to. Her muddling isn't working in the way it is supposed to."

Celebrating Greeks (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

'What exactly are the Greeks celebrating?' one German paper wondered

'What now, chancellor?'

Merkel's problem is that the referendum appears to have tipped the popular mood 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 towards the country.

News network N-TV came up with the most succinct headline: "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."

And yet, beneath the irritation, there was also a note of impatience towards the German government. The tabloid "Bild" seemed to be demanding action from Merkel on its front page: "What now, chancellor?"

Faced with the anger towards Greece, it's difficult to see how the chancellor can now offer Tsipras a new, more conciliatory deal without losing face at home and damaging her famous "Teflon" reputation. But the alternative - allowing Greece to collapse and leave the euro - would perhaps be equally damaging to her reputation as the guardian of the single currency and the continent-wide solidarity it stands for.

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.

Merkel with Tsipras (Photo: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Tsipras, the troublesome leftist who won't go away

Merkel's pragmatism rebounds

In fact, there is a growing feeling that the Greek crisis may already have damaged Merkel's aura of competence and control. The majority of the German media may be blaming the Greeks more than their chancellor for the disaster, and she may still have excellent approval ratings to fall back on, but many are also saying that Merkel's passive leadership style has contributed to the impasse.

"She tried to fix the problem with recipes she had used in German domestic politics: delaying, hiding and allowing things to remain vague," wrote "Der Spiegel" in this week's cover story.

"I believe she has underestimated the political-cultural elements of this crisis," Janning said. "She has underestimated the degree to which the narratives and stereotypes have split people so deeply that it's hard to see how they can come back together again."

Merkel's decision to allow Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to lead negotiations, even though he has long since clearly lost patience with the Greek government, has also been criticized, but Janning thinks this is unfair. "Schäuble is probably the most committed European of her whole cabinet - he does have those bigger ideas about Europe," he said. "He has a reference point that is further into the future than the chancellor herself does."

The problem with the Greek crisis, in other words, is that it doesn't play to Merkel's strengths. "She's been active enough when it comes to upgrading the institutional mechanisms of the eurozone," Janning said. "But what she didn't do, as the leading political actor in Europe, is realize she would have to address the Greek people directly. This is an existential crisis for many people. When there is an earthquake or a flood, you go there, talk to the people, you signal that you're with them, but also make clear that they have to develop their own effort."

Merkel, Janning points out, has barely visited Greece once since the crisis began, and never made a public speech there: "That is not good enough in the political environment that we're in."

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