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European Union

Encouragement but no commitment for Athens

Angela Merkel on Tuesday visited Athens in a visit hailed for its symbolic significance. Though the German chancellor expressed her support for Greece, she did not make the promises that some had hoped for.

It's not only in Germany and Greece that Merkel's trip to Athens made the headlines. More than 600 journalists from across the world had requested an accreditation for the press conference held by Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Tuesday afternoon. Putting that in context, the conference room in question ordinarily holds between 50 and 60 people.

Samaras used the worldwide attention to point again to the hardships endured by the Greek people after years of austerity cuts.

"I told Chancellor Merkel that the Greek people are bleeding, but are also determined to stay in the eurozone," Samaras said. The Greeks would not ask for more money or any favors, but rather for a chance to be able to stand on their own two feet again, to overcome the recession and reach their goals, he added.

Encouragement but no commitment

What was not touched upon, however, was one of the more pressing issues at stake. Athens is hoping for support from Germany in its bid for more time to pay back the country's debt. Greece also wants to ensure that the outstanding tranche of its aid package will be paid out by November. This is tied to a positive report by the so-called troika, consisting of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Angela Merkel did not make any concrete concessions and instead referred to the troika report which still awaits completion. But the chancellor nonetheless found words of encouragement and recognition for her hosts and spoke of a "particularly difficult phase" for the people in Greece.

"I therefore also want to say that a large part of the way has already been completed," Merkel said. "Yesterday, we heard in the eurogroup that there has been progress, and our talks here also make that clear: Every day there is progress in terms of mastering that difficult task."

A demonstrator holds a banner that reads 'Merkel Raus!' (Merkel Out!) (picture: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU/dpa)

Merkel's visit led to widespread protests. This banner reads 'Merkel out!' in German

Praise and criticism

This final statement has been met with enthusiasm in Athens. In general Greece's domestic media has depicted Merkel's trip as a proof of trust for the country. But the opposition in Athens holds a different view. The Radical Left, which in the latest election in June became the second strongest party in parliament, branded the talks a fiasco. The government had not even secured a binding agreement to ensure Greece would stay in the eurozone, the opposition criticized.

There were in fact some clear promises; Merkel merely said she would "hope and wish" that Greece would stay in the eurozone. But to conclude from this that Greece's membership in the single currency bloc was still in jeopardy was plainly wrong, said Jannis Pretenderis, political commentator for the Greek television network Mega Channel.

"It's a mistake for us Greeks to always be focused on our own country. Do we really think that Merkel came to Greece to talk to the Greeks? No. She came here to talk to the Germans and to tell them that this country, which for two and a half years has been attacked, has in fact made sacrifices and now deserves help and support," Pretenderis said.

Bad news from the IMF

In the meantime though there was more bad news for Greece: According to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund, Greece won't be able to reduce its debts by 2017 as planned. Against this background, Merkel's trip was of added significance, said Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, a member of parliament for the conservative governing party Nea Dimokratia.

"This trip breaks Greece's international isolation. And what do you think the international media would report about Greece today if Angela Merkel wasn't here? In light of the IMF news, there would again be speculation over a possible exit from the eurozone," the politician said.

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