Greeks paid heavy price during debt crisis, says Merkel

Athens (AFP) – Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday ended her final official visit to Athens by acknowledging that Greeks had paid a heavy price with austerity policies imposed to resolve its debt crisis.

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Greece faced a rolling financial implosion from 2009, and Merkel and her ministers demanded huge budget cuts, civil sector layoffs and drastic tax hikes in exchange for their support for bailouts of more than 300 billion euros.

At the height of the crisis in 2012, she was greeted by protesters brandishing images showing her with a Hitler moustache, with German tabloid Bild describing her as "one of the most hated women in Greece".

"I've always stressed my awareness of the impositions and challenges that the Greek were faced with related to the euro question," Merkel said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

But the chancellor insisted that the adjustment would have been less brutal had Greece and several other EU states undertaken key reforms during times of prosperity.

Der Spiegel magazine wrote on Friday that the Greek crisis was "a period of hysteria" where EU solidarity began to fray.

Greece admitted in 2009 that it had massively underreported its public deficit, leading to a panicked sell-off of government bonds and rising costs of borrowing that spread to several other eurozone countries.

"I think we were all very shocked about the susceptibility of the euro for external speculation," the chancellor admitted Friday.

She said the Greek-German relationship had always had a "good basis" but that it had gone "through difficult times during my tenure", vowing to visit Greece again as a private citizen.

'Voice of reason'

Mitsotakis said on Friday that the Greece of today was "no longer a source of crises and deficits".

He called Merkel "the voice of reason and stability" and pointed out that she had gone against the advice of her ministers during a turbulent 2015 and "refused to ostracise Greece from the eurozone".

At the height of the crisis in 2012, Merkel faced protesters brandishing banners with Nazi swastikas and depictions of her as a Hitler caricature
At the height of the crisis in 2012, Merkel faced protesters brandishing banners with Nazi swastikas and depictions of her as a Hitler caricature LOUISA GOULIAMAKI AFP/File

Starting in 2010, Merkel began to urge Greece's then Socialist prime minister George Papandreou to implement austerity to cut burgeoning public deficits.

Pensions were slashed, the minimum monthly wage fell to less than 600 euros and a wave of privatisations was set in motion.

In addition, staffing levels in public services and hospitals were reduced and there were shortages of medicines and other materials.

'Go back'

After leftist radical Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister in January 2015, tensions became palpable.

Months before he became leader, he had told crowds of cheering supporters that Merkel and her then-finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble should "go back".

Germany's Angela Merkel and Greece's then prime minister Alexis Tsipras  did not always agree which direction to go in
Germany's Angela Merkel and Greece's then prime minister Alexis Tsipras did not always agree which direction to go in Louisa GOULIAMAKI AFP/File

Greece was on the verge of being kicked out of the euro at the time, but Tsipras finally submitted to pressure from its creditors and agreed to fresh austerity measures.

Tsipras wrote in Die Zeit news magazine last month that "honesty" had created "the building of trust" with the German chancellor despite their political differences.

Merkel worked with eight Greek prime ministers from across the party spectrum, including technocrat PM Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank vice-president who survived a 2017 letter bomb attack.

Merkel had been the intended recipient of a similar explosive device sent by a Greek far-left group in 2010. It was intercepted at the chancellery and deactivated.

As she bows out of office after 16 years, Merkel's stock remains low in Greece.

A Pew Research poll conducted in 16 different countries found that, in Greece, only 30 percent of people had confidence in her, compared with an average of 77 percent elsewhere.