It’s all Greek to Ger­many

Dis­pute over the bailout for Athens un­der­scores cul­tural dif­fer­ences

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Steven Zeitchik steve.zeitchik@la­times.com Twit­ter: @ZeitchikLAT

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.”

An­ge­los Tzortzinis AFP/Getty Images

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.

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