Wolfgang Schaüble surprises Greeks with charm offensive
Germany’s minister was full of praise in Athens – but on the streets they were sceptical
German finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble arrives at a Greek-German industry and trade chamber meeting in Athens. Photograph: Costas Baltas/Reuters
It was Otto Von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, who said politics was the art of the possible.
In Athens, pushing his wheelchair along craggy pavements and the dark corridors of the Orwellian behemoth that is the finance ministry, Wolfgang Schaüble, the German finance minister, would have made Bismarck proud.
In Greece Mr Schaüble is a hated man; loathed as much for the austerity he has personally prescribed as the manner with which it has been handed out.
No one is more identified with the twin ills – runaway unemployment and rising poverty – now bedevilling the country than he. To pretend otherwise is to play a fool’s game.
But yesterday Mr Schaüble pulled off a stellar performance doing just that as he made his first visit to the country since the eruption of Europe’s debt crisis in Greece in late 2009.
The political opposition may have declared him persona non grata. And riot police may have turned Athens into a garrison town, its roads sealed off in one of the biggest security cordons thrown around the capital in living memory.
But responding with a charm attack few would have thought possible for a politician more usually associated with irascibility, in meeting after meeting Mr Schaüble pressed home the message that he was “happy” to be in Greece – and even better, delighted with the progress its debt-stricken economy had made.
“This visit is an expression of our confidence in, and support for Greece,” he enthused.
“I have not come as a teacher to give lessons.” The assembled press pack – including his retinue of German reporters – looked on bewildered.
“He’s actually smiling,” said one photographer as Mr Schaüble joked with his Greek counterpart Yannis Stournaras at the end of a press conference. “I didn’t know he had it in him.”
The trip, barely two months before federal elections in Germany, was aimed at sending a “message of support to Greeks”, Mr Stournaras said.
“He is here to talks to the Greeks and to listen to our views,” the minister insisted.
But on the streets of a capital that resembled a ghost town for most of the day, there were few – if any – who believed him.
Almost four years into its worst crisis in modern times, Greeks are numb with fatigue, exhaustion and fear. Even officials in the governing coalition who in private say Mr Schaüble has been nothing but “rude and aggressive” were hesitant to support the German yesterday. Instead, they admitted that Greece was locked in an economic death spiral – its indicators going from bad to worse – as a result of the punitive medicine Berlin was determined to mete out.
“This is nothing but a PR campaign, an attempt to say Greece is a success story and the euro zone crisis is over,” a senior prime ministerial aide confided. “And we all know that is not the case because it’s only now, in the coming months, that we will even begin to see the results of the measures.”
The decision to lay off 25,000 workers from the public sector – cuts which Mr Schaüble has backed assiduously - could, officials fear, be the last straw.
With unemployment approaching 27 per cent, some 1.3 million people – two out of three workers – are already out of work. The devastating figure comes on the back of Greeks already having seen their salaries slashed by 25 per cent and taxes increased tenfold.
As parliament debated the cuts this week the radical left main opposition party warned that the country was not only “under German occupation” but heading for civil war.
‘Worst case scenario’
“We no longer have an audience. Greek people have given up believing there is an alternative that could be worse,” said another insider with close access to the political elite. “They believe this is the worst case scenario and that’s scary.”
Parliament narrowly approved new austerity measures which will mean mass firings and transfers of workers in Greece’s bloated public sector.
The German finance minister may have pulled off the impossible but he had done so in a country that remains a minefield in the euro zone. – (Guardian service)