‘Greece is like a rat’s tail. It will come round to hit us’

Saturday, May 8, 2010
By Paul Martin

Roger Boyes
TimesOnlineUK
May 8, 2010

Eleni is busy. Beyond the doors of the kitchen you can make out her gentle bullying: agape mia, she seems to be saying, my dear, where are the dolmades for Table 3? And back in the restaurant, with its murals of the blue Aegean, she flits from alcove to alcove listening to the sour jokes from her German customers — “Eleni, don’t expect me to pay the bill for the next three years, you Greeks are already emptying our pockets.” The Germans may be angry with the Greeks but they are not about to go without their ouzo. As the country approaches a critical election tomorrow it is becoming clear that bailing out Greece has become a key issue for Germans. “It’s the dominant topic,” says Klaus-Peter Schöppner, the head of the Emnid polling institute. “People are asking what happens to us if we don’t help the Greeks?”

Other questions are beginning to nag the Germans, too: how much Europe do we really need? Suddenly the European project that was for so long the preserve of the elites — the scrapping of the mark, EU eastward enlargement — has become a matter of public debate. It was instructive to study the faces of German trade unionists on May Day as they made their routine pledges of proletarian support to Greek workers; the cameras captured the bemusement of the listening crowds. Solidarity with the Greeks? Paying them money from our taxes so that they could retire in their late fifties while we slog on until 67? Precisely what European idea makes that possible?

The vote that is bringing these doubts to the surface is being held in North Rhine-Westphalia, a region that encompasses the once heavily industrialised Ruhr Valley. There are big cities such as Cologne and Dortmund struggling with the economic downturn and the crumbling of multicultural communities, great swaths of farmland and also pockets of neglect, as impoverished as anything that can be seen in the heavily subsidised eastern Germany. Eighteen million people live in the region compared with only eleven million in the whole of Greece. It is ruled by a coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, just like the country as a whole.

The election has become a tight contest. If the Government collapses there, Angela Merkel will lose her majority in the Upper House of parliament — and the plans for a radical overhaul of the tax and health systems will be blocked by the Social Democrats. Popular frustration about Greece, and about Europe, has therefore become a critical factor in Ms Merkel’s future.

“I never wanted the euro,” says Michael, 42, a self-employed businessman, tucking into souvlaki at Eleni’s place in Cologne. “And I didn’t want it for all the reasons that are becoming obvious now — it’s just a way of transferring our hard-earned cash to be spent in the south.”

His friend Sven, 36, feels the same way: “We’re just the paymasters of Europe — that’s got to stop.” Both men, and their big black Weimaraner dog, are regulars at Eleni’s restaurant, called Athens, in Cologne. Neither man has ever been to Greece — “and we certainly won’t go now” — but they eat Greek because it is good value for money.

Greek restaurants are little oases in Germany. Kids are not treated with suspicion in the usual niggardly German tradition, some singing is tolerated, a free ouzo arrives with the coffee. Eleni’s father came from his central Greek village to work in a cable factory. “He is back in the countryside and has a good life on his German pension,” says Eleni who set up Athens 25 years ago with her brother and husband.

German customers dip in and out, enjoying a trip to a “virtual” Europe. They have no gripe with Eleni, whose long hours belie the hostile drumbeat from Bild, which regularly brands the Greeks as idle cheats. Eleni has started to think like a German. “I love my country, but it is time to work harder, to save, not just live for today,” she says.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says an Osnabrück software engineer, Burkhard Beckmann, 41. “I’m not against European solidarity. It’s just that we have so many problems at home. They have to take priority over the Greeks and all the others . What about our roads, our schools? Of course this Greek payout is going to affect the way I vote on Sunday.”

European integration was West Germany’s road back to postwar respectability and that entailed writing a great many cheques to underpin the bureaucracy of the Common Agricultural Policy. Although Germany’s resources are more limited — handicapped by the cost of unification, and the financial crisis — it is assuming its full international responsibilities and still having to pay the lion’s share of EU bills.

“We’re doing it all, our soldiers are dying in Afghanistan and we’re looking stupid,” says Michael at the Athens restaurant.

The EU, it is quickly becoming clear, was never loved in Germany. The deeply unpopular introduction of the euro was grudgingly accepted after the Chancellor then, Helmut Kohl, declared monetary union to be a matter of “war and peace”. The fear of national conflict in Europe out-trumped the fear of an eroded national currency. Now, only 9 per cent of the Germans believe that the euro could be scrapped — but, according to the Allensbach polling institute, almost 50 per cent would rather have the mark back.

Germans accept the realities of the day. In the end, they will also swallow the need to help Greece, though largely out of self-interest. They no longer accept, however, the logic of the late 1990s, the imperatives of the Maastricht debate, the pathos of Mr Kohl who declared European unification to be the flip side of German unity. When Ms Merkel this week said that aid for Greece was “about nothing less than the future of Europe”, most Germans shrugged. How many times have they heard those words when justifying more sacrifice?

The Greek-cum-euro crisis is taking its toll of Ms Merkel’s reputation. Her popularity has dropped six points in the past week. Germans have voted for Ms Merkel in the past because they appreciate her sense of calm, her refusal to panic in the face of a calamity. But what if a crisis is beyond her control, what if it is part of a systemic breakdown in Europe? That is what is beginning to bother the Germans and Ms Merkel no longer radiates her customary confidence.

“We used to think that we were independent, but we’re not,” says Susanne Oberle-Hildenbrand, 32, a businesswoman. “Germany is incredibly indebted and now we are forking out for Greece, it’s like a rat’s tail. It will come round to hit us, our money will be worth nothing, there will be a big inflation — and who will help us, then? Nobody!”

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