Draped in the tricolour flag and chanting, Germans took to the streets of their capital Sunday night to rally in support of a decision that seemed poised to shape European history.
But it was not Greek politics that animated them. The German-Danish soccer showdown in the Euro Cup – a match whose German victory will lead to an irony-laced Greece-Germany confrontation in the quarterfinals– captivated most Germans.
While other Europeans were taking to the streets to argue about austerity and bailouts, not so the Germans, who are almost uniquely uninterested in the perilous details of a currency crisis that has spared them completely, even though its consequences could devastate their economy.
At the same time, behind closed doors at the Bundestag and the finance ministry, the Greek outcome was being watched with obsessive detail. Chancellor Angela Markel’s jet idled on the runway of Berlin’s Tegel Airport, her trip to the G20 summit in Mexico postponed until Greece’s fate – and by extension the euro’s – was known.
An emergency conference call between euro-zone finance ministers proved unnecessary when the pro-austerity parties appeared to have a majority. But an intense round of German-Greek diplomacy will be necessary – as will difficult days of politicking within Germany – to get Ms. Merkel’s political opponents to ratify a 25-nation fiscal compact, which demands tough spending limits in exchange for access to rescue loans. Newly emboldened by the Greek results, her party now expects to pass the treaty on June 29, the last possible day.
That disconnect between public disinterest and official panic places Ms. Merkel in the awkward position of needing to take decisive action on European economic reform while facing an electorate that doesn’t want to get involved.
“There’s not a big awareness of it here because Germany came rather well through the crisis,” said Ulrike Guérot of Berlin’s European Council on Foreign Relations.
“This is why there isn’t a big focus on the Greek elections … but there is this growing impatience,” she added. “We have been doing one rescue package after another, but enough is enough, and could you finally say ‘ danke’?”
In the media, German impatience with Greek voters was palpable. Two major newspapers, the Berlin tabloid Bild and the German edition of the Financial Times, published prominent editorials – in the Greek language – urging Greek voters to put the conservative pro-austerity parties into power.
“If you did not want our billions, it would have been fine by us for you to vote for any leftist or rightist clown you wanted,” the Bild Greek-language editorial read. … But your ATMs continue to give you euros only because we put them there.” It continued: “Yet you still call us Nazis, which we do not find funny. Let’s be clear on this: If the elections are won by parties that want to put an end to austerity and reform, breaching every agreement, we will stop paying.”
That populist anger now threatens to overwhelm the traditional German sense of European solidarity. Even Ms. Merkel, who has been working to create a Europe-wide fiscal union to bolster the common currency, expressed her country’s impatience when asked about Greece on Saturday. “It is not acceptable,” she said, “that those who don’t stick to agreements can lead the others by the nose-ring around the circus tent.”
Once it seemed certain that a pro-austerity coalition had won the vote, the official reaction seemed more exasperation than relief. Guido Westerwelle, Ms. Merkel’s foreign minister, said there would be no substantial changes to Germany’s demands from Greece other than possible extensions of deadlines for the austerity measures, and that Germans have already “shown solidarity with the Greeks” with rescue packages worth €40-billion ($52-billion). He added: “They could also say thank you.”
Finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble was more conciliatory, telling Greeks that they had, in his view, made the right decision, even if it dooms them to years of decline. “The path is neither short nor easy, but it is inevitable,” he said.
There is a sense in political circles, however, that because of this public indifference and disdain, a worsening euro crisis could be good for the political fortunes of Ms. Merkel.
“Bluntly speaking, the Germans love her,” said Carsten Brzeski, a senior economist at ING Group. “So even in the case of Greek exit, even if the Germans would be pissed off by the Greeks, they would not blame Merkel. … In the course of turmoil, the Germans would put out more support for Merkel, because they have trust and confidence in her, that she can somehow steer them through the chaos. Strangely enough, she seems to be above everything.”
Perhaps for that reason, Ms. Merkel has wavered on how much she needs to please Germany’s left-leaning opposition parties in order to pass the euro bailout-fund plan. To secure the large parliamentary majority needed for ratification, she had promised the Social Democrats that it would include a financial transaction tax – a so-called “Tobin tax” levied on stock and bond trades.
But the magazine Der Spiegel reported this weekend that she was wavering on this commitment and might ensure that the tax is not passed until after the 2013 national elections – the event that will prove the real test of her popularity, especially after the bailout treaty gives Germans a small taste of the austerity they are demanding on others.
With a report from Janelle Dumalaon in Berlin