Many of the Greeks who voted for Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party on Sunday were in fact casting their ballots against two German politicians: Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Wolfgang Sch??uble, her finance minister. Was not the 'austerity' these two have prescribed for Greece since the euro crisis began a form of 'fiscal waterboarding', as Tsipras described it?
How will Merkel and Schauble now respond? Earlier this month they leaked – or did not deny – their assessment that the eurozone has changed since 2012 and could now bear an exit by Greece – although nobody actually wants such an outcome, as Merkel's speaker repeats every time he is pressed on the topic.
As Tsipras now forms his government, Merkel will be careful not to say much in public, lest she appear even more bullying. But she does not need to speak, for every other politician in her governing coalition seems eager to do that job for her. G? 1/4 nther Oettinger, a commissioner in Brussels and member of Merkel's own party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says that another 'haircut' on Greek debt is out of the question. Others in the CDU and its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU, are even more adamant. Even the centre-left Social Democrats in the coalition are urging Tsipras to clean up corruption and keep cutting spending, and above all to honour all the commitments Greece has already made during its bailouts. Rules are rules, after all.
Until recently, some of this tough talk might have been dismissed as tactical grandstanding by the Germans before they eventually yield to some more moderate arrangement with Tsipras, who will need to refinance a lot of Greek debt in March. If not a haircut, perhaps more flexibility with coupon payments is on the table, or something of that sort. But many in Germany's political elite have now talked themselves, and Merkel, into a box from which it will be hard to get out again.
German public opinion may no longer be as outraged about perceived Greek venality as it was in the early years of the euro crisis. Instead, the mood has turned to resignation and fatigue. Nevertheless, there are two factors in play that have made German politics more rather than less intransigent in recent years.
The first is the growing German perception that Germany, despite being the principal paymaster of all rescue efforts, is gradually being outvoted and outwitted by other countries, institutions and philosophies, among which exhibit A is the European central bank. By a strict German interpretation, the ECB has increasingly strayed beyond its monetary policy mandate, most recently and spectacularly with the bond-buying programme (called 'quantitative easing', amounting to money-printing) it announced in mid-January. More and more Germans, nervous that their savings accounts are earning no interest, want no more of this.
The second factor is the continuing rise of the Alternative for Germany, a party founded in 2013 to call for a dissolution of the euro area. Especially in the former East Germany, it has in recent months morphed into a far-right movement, with harsh rhetoric against criminals, homosexuals, asylum-seekers, Muslims and the allegedly liberal press. The Alternative is flirting openly with Pegida, the 'patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident', a spontaneous movement of demonstrators centred on Dresden.
Some of the Alternative's leaders, such as Bernd Lucke, one of its three speakers, now worry that the fledgling party may drift too far to the extremist right. He wants to refocus its pitch on the original anti-euro message – especially in the run-up to next month's regional election in Hamburg, where the Alternative hopes to enter its first western state parliament. Whether with thinly-veiled xenophobia in the east of the country or anti-bailout Euroscepticism in the west, the Alternative is now a new magnetic pole in German politics, pulling the CDU, CSU and even the Social Democrats from the centre toward the right. Rest assured that talks with Tsipras will be prickly as a result.
Andreas Kluth is Berlin bureau chief of the Economist. His essay on Germany's new self-identity appears in the latest edition of Juncture, IPPR's journal of politics and ideas.
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