When the red carpet is rolled out for Alexis Tsipras in Berlin on Monday, the euro debt drama will come to a potentially decisive turning point.
His host will be none other than Angela Merkel, Europe’s mother, its powerbroker par excellence and the queen of austerity, defender of the very policies the left-wing firebrand has vowed to dismantle. For many, it will be the long anticipated moment of truth.
There has been much that is familiar on the great Greek crisis train. For those on board, it has been a rollercoaster ride, one that seems to have arrived at the place it began.
In five years of recession and austerity, seeing their country argue with creditors and bargain over reforms, Greeks have had an added sense of deja vu. Athens, in many ways, is still where it was when the crisis exploded in late 2009.
Merkel’s olive branch could change that. European solidarity is on the line but so, too, is the future of Greece and the single currency bloc to which it belongs. Historians will see a meeting of minds or deduce that the euro crisis ultimately crashed on the buffers of immovable object meeting irresistible force.
The stakes could not be higher. Speculation of a Greek default and exit from the eurozone has resurfaced with a vengeance. And in Greek-German relations – amid renewed talk of war reparations and Nazi crimes – the climate couldn’t be worse.
So bad have bilateral ties become that, on Sunday, Manolis Glezos, the second world war hero and symbol of national resistance, appealed to both countries for calm and logic to prevail. Toxic nationalism – the affliction the European Union was created to quell – was, he said, at risk of once again rearing its ugly head.
“I am worried by the climate of division, intolerance and hostility that some are seeking to create between,” said the 92-year-old adding that Greeks in no way blamed today’s Germans for the atrocities of the Third Reich.
As an icon of the left – and leading Euro MP of Tsipras’ radical left Syriza party – the plea was seen as a direct message to the Greek premier.
The anti-austerity leader flies into Berlin as the crisis moves from the chronic stage back into the acute.
Money and time for Athens is running out. Greece is faced with some 1.6 billion euro in debt repayments by the end of March with another 2 bn euro maturing next month. There are real – and growing concerns – that with cash reserves drying up, the government will have to issue IOUs to pay pensions and public sector salaries next week. The euro zone’s weakest link has never been more dependent on Teutonic goodwill.
Now his interlocutor will want to know, can Tsipras finally endorse euro rules?
As the king of the anti-austerity movement, the cards, say creditors, are in the premier’s hands. But how will he play them when at 5 PM on Monday he is ushered into a room to sit opposite the woman who holds the key to keeping Greek bankruptcy at bay but is also seen as the embodiment of the policies that have pauperised his country?
More than once, Tsipras has disparagingly referred to the German chancellor as “madam Merkel” with his pledge to destroy “Merkelism” central to his elevation to power in January. More than once, she has described him as “that unhelpful trouble maker.” On both sides, bucketloads of diplomacy will be required.
All weekend, Greek officials have scrambled to draft reforms – the condition for further aid – to placate Berlin, the biggest contributor of the 240bn euro in emergency funding extended to Athens through its EU-IMF bailout programme.
Tsipras himself says he wants to reach a “honourable compromise.” In place of the “creative ambiguity” used in the drafting of proposals dismissed by creditors earlier, Athens’ flamboyant finance minister Yanis Varoufakis insists he will strive to employ “creative clarity.” Privatisations and new taxes are on the cards. Merkel has said she wants specifics.
On both sides, the talks are being seen as a “moment of truth.” Greece has made clear, under its new government, that it does not want to leave the euro zone and Tsipras his point that austerity needs to be eased. In Athens officials are putting on a brave face.
“We are looking forward to this meeting,” said the Greek government spokesman Gavriel Sakellarides. “There’s a good chemistry between the two leaders. It’s much better that they talk directly to one another.
But many also fear that in a bid to douse dissent within his own party, Tsipras is trying to buy time hoping that fellow anti-austerians are elected elsewhere in Europe. And that Merkel, bowing to rising anti-Greek sentiment among her own constituency, will also push too hard.
In Greece, the by-products of austerity – unprecedented poverty levels and record unemployment – are bringing ever-growing numbers to breaking point.
“We are, now, at the most critical stage of the crisis,” says Fotini Pipili, a former conservative MP insisting that Tsipras had to represent “all Greeks” when he meets Merkel. “He has to be bold. He has to represent everyone, including those who didn’t vote for him by promising real reforms,” she said. “Greece’s future depends on it. This is the moment of truth.”