It’s all Greek to Germany
Dispute over the bailout for Athens underscores cultural differences
BERLIN — As Germany and Greece continue to negotiate over the terms of Greece’s economic bailout, the stakes are high — as is the level of resentment.
On Thursday, Greece requested a deferral from the International Monetary Fund for a $325-million payment due Friday after the country failed to make a deal with German-led European institutions. The IMF granted the request, which postpones the payment to the end of the month; that’s when cash-strapped Greece will now be obligated to pay its full June total of more than $1.6 billion.
Negotiators have been conducting eleventh-hour meetings to resolve the crisis, with Greece seeking a reprieve from its Germany-led creditors, along with the release of more bailout funds. If the sides can’t come to terms, Greece could go into default and even exit the Eurozone.
Leaders on each side are seeking ways to both reach a deal and claim victory. The Brussels-based negotiations, under German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, center on complicated, and even speculative, economic points. They include the level of Greece’s budget surplus (the amount by which its tax revenue exceeds spending). The Germans, advocates for austerity, want Greece to agree to a higher surplus; the Greeks prefer a lower one.
But the battle is about more than just fiscal policy: It continues to lay bare fundamental cultural differences between two of Eu- rope’s most prominent nations, with a dollop of ill will to spare.
Separated by 1,000 miles, Greece and Germany have nonetheless long been entwined. Greeks have served as a key component of the immigrant community in Germany; German tourists help sustain the Greek economy. The nations also each faced their share of governance challenges in the 20th century.
But despite, or because of, commonalities, each side has been engaged in its fair share of skepticism and snark and stereotyping.
For months, Greek news media have been depicting Schaeuble and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as stern, finger-wagging types and have even resorted to Nazi imagery. The popular Greek cartoonist Stathis Stavropoulos has drawn Merkel as a soldier menacing Greek children, while portraying Schaeuble in an SS uniform.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has said that debt forgiveness would be an apt way of making good on reparations for what the Nazi occupation wrought on Greece during World War II.
On the German side, tabloids such as Bild have stoked the cultural flames. In illustrations and headlines, the newspaper has painted Greeks as lazy freeloaders seeking a free lunch. When Tsipras arrived in Berlin on a recent trip, Bild listed aspects of Greek culture it liked (yogurt, Archimedes), then offered the Greek prime minister some money-saving tips.
As the situation has festered, German tourists have cut back on travel to Greece, with many heading instead to nearby Turkey or other similar warm-weather locales.
An even more serious turn came recently when suspected anti-German radicals fired bullets at the German ambassador’s house in Athens.
Each side has some basis for its case — and flaws in its arguments.
The Greeks bristle at taking orders from another country, especially one they believe isn’t willing to accept its economic realities. “It’s like saying you wish you were 6 inches taller and then continuing to complain that your clothes don’t fit,” said one Greek in a recent interview.
But most experts note the Germans have been patient with Greece’s Syriza party, which took power four months ago after pushing a strong anti-austerity campaign platform and has struggled to find its footing. Varoufakis, a free-swinging type, couldn’t be a sharper contrast to Schaeuble’s buttoned-down bureaucrat image.
At the same time, the German interest in Greece’s bailout is not born of pure selflessness. After all, German banks handle the loans and collect the interest, meaning the bailout helps them too.
“The idea of not spending more than you have is something that goes very deep in the German psyche, and that’s a very hard gap to bridge with Greece,” said Joerg Forbrig, a foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “But the Germany economy has benefited massively from the loan-driven Greek culture.”
The battle has revealed fault lines over the coun- tries’ respective approaches to borrowing and work. In Athens, seemingly every other Greek has a story about an interaction with a German tourist, like the one who said visitors wouldn’t pay their restaurant tax because they already did their part to fill Greece’s coffers. At the same time, there are stories of the diner who leaves twice as much on the table to help the country back on its feet.
Meanwhile, at Asteria, one of dozens of Greek restaurants in Berlin, a manager said there has been no decrease in business. In fact, the restaurateur wondered aloud whether tourists who were cutting back on travel to Greece were seeking their Mediterranean meal fix in their home country.
On Thursday, Tsipras said a deal over the latest repayment could be imminent, though a deputy minister, Thodoris Dritsas, said the proposals of the German-led institutions were “beneath expectations in every way.” Later in the day, Merkel said at a news conference that “the talks are far from reaching a conclusion.”
Meanwhile, some are finding creative ways around the cultural differences. At the Athens airport recently, a trio of young women from Munich, Germany, were about to embark on a holiday weekend in Greece.
“We wanted to come because we’ve heard about the nice sites like the Acropolis,” one said. “But we’re telling people we’re Swiss just in case.”
A LOTTERY ticket seller in Athens. If Greece and its Germany-led creditors can’t come to terms on the financial bailout, the debt-laden country could go into default and even exit the Eurozone.