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Explaining German angst over Greece

Gavin Hewitt | 16:41 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

merkel_afp595.jpgCrises usually come with sub-plots, back-stories. So, too, with the Greek bail-out. Sure Athens is being urged to slash its spending further, but the big squeeze is on the Germans.

Sometimes as you listen in on Europe's angst it would be easy to think that it was Germany that was to blame.

The thought crossed my mind yesterday after I had interviewed Nikolaus Blome, a political columnist for Bild magazine. When we had finished speaking he was patched through for a radio interview. I could not hear the questions but, at one stage, he said "there is no nationalism in Germany". I tried to imagine the question that had prompted his curt put-down.

Perhaps it was "are the Germans asserting their national identity?" I never found out.

Others, however, are sensing that the German character is being questioned again. Tom Buhrow, a news anchor with ARD, noted in an article in the International Herald Tribune that "old accusations start to fly. Is that what the European project is? Either Germany foots the bill or our past is invoked against us." For many Germans it must be that history is never expunged but merely parked, held in reserve, to be used against them if they get out of line.

Leave aside history and many fingers are pointing at Berlin rather than Athens. This was Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from the part of European Socialists: "The downgrading of Greece's credit rating and junk status is an indictment of Angela Merkel's policy of prevarication...all the time to put local politics before international solidarity." How quickly, it seems, some of the basic facts of this crisis are forgotten. The fiddling of Greek accounts. The deficit that had been hidden. A bloated Greek public sector. An economy that struggled to compete.

In this scenario Mrs Merkel's crime is an interesting one. She was sensitive to local politics. I have heard the same accusation in Brussels that the Germans were "letting politics get in the way".

Well German tax payers were being asked to loan Greece nearly 8bn euros. That is not small change. And then in the past few days it has become apparent that Germany could be in for 25bn euros. In Mr Rasmussen's view that is not worth deliberating over. Many Germans, I suspect, would politely disagree. That is what elected politicians are for.

What Angela Merkel has been negotiating over is firstly to ensure Germany gets its money back. Secondly, that Greece lives up to its promises by adopting convincing austerity measures, and thirdly, to ensure that Germany doesn't become a cash-point for all those eurozone countries running into trouble.

Often those who want a rapid rescue of Greece cite "solidarity". Greek ministers, of late, like the word. It is often favoured by those who want something. It is an appeal to a higher motive.

Talking to people yesterday in Berlin I did find a sense of valuing being part of the European club or family. It resonates with people. Where "solidarity" becomes dangerous, however, is when it is used to obscure a basic truth. Many believe it is one of the reasons the euro is in trouble today.

Angela Merkel openly questions whether Greece should have joined the single currency in the first place. The data was not analysed carefully enough, in her view. The motivation was "solidarity", to get as many countries into the euro as possible.

Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform says "the problem here is the recurring inability in the European project to say brutal truths honestly and clearly and to act on them in a realistic
manner".

Here are just a few of those brutal truths: the eurozone had no mechanism to deal with a country veering towards default. The criteria for allowing Greece into the eurozone was fudged. Brussels knew there were problems with the Greek accounts but preferred not to take the tough options.

Time and again during this crisis EU officials have asserted they had a deal that would save Greece. After a while when the deal evaporated the various announcements began to look like attempts to spin the market. Over four months of talks and summits it never worked.

The financial markets wanted more than words. Now the accusation is that the deal ran up against German "intransigence". Sometimes another basic truth is forgotten, that a "no bail-out" clause was written into the single currency's rules. It was one of the factors that persuaded Germans to abandon the mark for the euro, that they would not have to bail out the weak or the reckless.

So the Germans are unhappy. Some 65% of them, according to the latest polls, oppose a bail-out. It is not that suddenly they have become anti-European. It's just that as Tom Buhrow says, "we'll just not share the pin code of our ATM with you".

In the unsettled months ahead the EU will have to take a long, hard look at the single currency and whether countries with such different cultures and economies can share monetary union.

Germans value the euro and want to see it prosper as a strong and stable currency but, I sense, they want a debate rooted in reality and they won't play the role of scapegoat for the most severe crisis to challenge the single currency.

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