As Germany and Greece continue to negotiate over the terms of Greece’s economic bailout, the stakes are high – as is the level of resentment.
On Thursday, Greece requested a deferral from the International Monetary Fund for a $325-million payment after failing to make a deal with its German-led creditors. The IMF postponed the payment to the end of the month, when cash-strapped Greece will now be obligated to pay its full June total of more than $1.6 billion.
Negotiators have been conducting eleventh-hour meetings to resolve the crisis, in which Greece seeks a reprieve and the release of more bailout funds. If the sides can’t come to terms, Greece could go into default and even exit the Eurozone.
The Brussels-based talks, under German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis, center on complicated, and even speculative, economic points that include Greece’s budget surplus. (The Germans, advocates for austerity, want Greece to agree to a higher surplus; the Greeks are pushing for a lower one.)
But the battle is about more than just fiscal policy. As it plays out in conference rooms far from the lives of ordinary citizens, the crisis has laid bare fundamental cultural differences between two of Europe's most prominent nations, and offered a dollop of ill-will besides.
Separated by about 1,000 miles, Greece and Germany have long been entwined. Greek emigres have served as a key component of Germany's immigrant community. German tourists help sustain the Greek economy.
But despite--or because of--these commonalities, each side has been engaged in skepticism, snark and stereotyping. The debt crisis may be a war fought by suited people in government buildings, but it is a skirmish nonetheless, and comes with its fair share of cultural fallout.
For months, Greek news media have been depicting Schaeuble and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as stern, finger-wagging types. In more severe cases, they've even resorted to Nazi imagery. The popular Greek cartoonist Stathis Stavropoulos has drawn Merkel as a soldier menacing Greek children, while portraying Schaeuble in an SS uniform.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has raised the World War II issue himself. Citing the Nazi occupation of Greece, he has said debt forgiveness would be an apt way for Germany to pay reparations, an invocation that continues to prompt many on the streets of Germany to roll their eyes and call unfair.
On the German media side, tabloids such as Bild have done their part to stoke the flames. In illustrations and headlines, the newspaper has painted Greeks as lazy freeloaders seeking a free lunch. When Tsipras arrived in Berlin on a recent trip, Bild listed aspects of Greek culture it liked (yogurt, Archimedes)--then offered the Greek prime minister some money-saving tips.
As the situation has festered, German tourists have cut back on travel to Greece, with many heading instead to nearby Turkey or other warm-weather locales.
Things became more serious when suspected anti-German radicals fired bullets at the German ambassador's house in Athens.
Each side has some basis for its case -- and flaws in its arguments.
Experts note the Germans have been patient with Greece’s Syriza party, which has sometimes struggled to find its footing after being swept into power on an anti-austerity platform, and with Varoufakis, a free-swinging type who couldn't be a sharper contrast to Schaeuble's buttoned-down bureaucrat image.
But at the same time, the Greeks understandably bristle at taking orders from another country, especially one they believe isn't willing to accept its economic realities. ”It's like saying you wish you were 6 inches taller and then continuing to complain that your clothes don't fit,” said one Greek.
And the German interest in Greece’s bailout is not born of pure selflessness. After all, as some analysts point out, German banks handle the loans and collect the interest, meaning the bailout helps them too.
The disagreement between the two countries has grown sufficiently intense that a recent public-opinion poll in Germany found that trust in Greece as a partner was at a dismally low 14%, lower by several percentage points even than the trust in present-moment Russia. (In comparison, France came in at 81%, and the U.S. at 52%.)
The mistrust is in part a function of, and has revealed fault lines in, the nations' contrasting approaches to borrowing and work.
“The idea of not spending more than you have is something that goes very deep in the German psyche, and that's a very hard gap to bridge with Greece,” said Joerg Forbrig, a foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “But the Germany economy has benefited massively from the loan-driven Greek culture, and that point sometimes seems to be lost on the broader public in Germany.”
In Athens, seemingly every other Greek has a story about an interaction with a German tourist, like the one who said they wouldn't pay their restaurant tax because they already did their part to fill Greece's coffers. There are, at the other end of the spectrum, stories of the diner who leaves twice as much on the table to help the country back on its feet, though those stories are not as common, or at least not recounted by Greeks with the same relish.
Meanwhile, at Asteria, one of dozens of Greek restaurants in Berlin, a manager said there has been no decrease in business. In fact, the restaurateur wondered out loud whether tourists who were cutting back on travel to Greece were seeking their Mediterranean meal fix in their home country.
On Thursday, Tsipras said a deal over the latest repayment could be imminent, though a deputy minister, Thodoris Dritsas, said that the proposals of the German-led institutions were “beneath expectations in every way.” Later in the day, Merkel said at a news conference that “the talks are far from reaching a conclusion;” Greece made the request for an IMF deferral shortly after.
As the fight has played out at the highest ranks, some people back at home have found some creative ways to navigate around it. At the Athens airport recently, a trio of young women from Munich, Germany, were about to embark on a holiday weekend in Greece.
“We wanted to come because we've heard about the nice sites like the Acropolis,” one said. “But we're telling people we're Swiss just in case.”