A few days ago, a group of German comedians produced a satire of their country’s attitude toward Greece under the title “Our Precious German Euros.” Filmed in a pair of swanky hotel rooms, the clip lampoons two pampered yuppies, Klaus and Jan, as they vent their annoyance at all the money their country has spent bailing out the “bankrupt” and “greedy” Greeks. “These swindling Greeks are destroying our euro,” says Klaus. “Nobody’s ever given us Germans something for nothing,” says Jan.
In case it wasn’t clear, the moral of the sketch then appears with a chirpy melody: Germans have the “historic opportunity,” it says, “not to behave like a–holes for once” and to show Greece a bit of sympathy.
It’s a message that seems to have passed Germany’s leaders by. Across Europe and increasingly in Germany itself, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is being blamed for treating Greece like a disobedient stepchild rather than an equal member of the European currency union. The fallout has revealed not only the depth of European angst over Germany’s growing influence in the E.U., but also how uncomfortable the Germans are in wielding that influence as a political weapon.
“This country is having a hard time getting used to this leadership role, to being in the driver’s seat,” says Joerg Forbrig, a foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “For Germans the role of a leader, or a benevolent hegemon, is acceptable,” he adds. “But our skin is super thin when it comes to the reactions you elicit in that role.”
Those reactions have been fierce in the wake of the Greek bailout agreement reached on Monday in Brussels. As the Greek parliament prepared to vote Wednesday on a financial rescue package worth up to 86 billion euros over the next three years, more than a hundred members of the ruling Syriza party said Greece had only accepted the deal because its creditors – especially Germany – had threatened “immediate financial strangulation” if Greece resisted. The statement, released just hours before anti-austerity in Athens turned violent Wednesday night, went on to call the agreement “a coup that goes directly against any kind of notion of democracy and popular sovereignty.”
And there was little doubt to Greeks who was to blame. Although Germany was not the only European country that wanted to saddle Greece with harsh austerity measures in exchange for a deal, the delegates from Berlin were the most forceful and visible in making these demands. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, even insisted that Greece should be pushed out of the euro currency union for five years unless it submits to more spending cuts, tax hikes and a massive sell-off of state assets.
It wasn’t just the Greeks driven into a rage by such demands; the German government has also faced criticism at home. While Merkel’s ruling coalition has mostly toed the party line, opposition figures have been sniping at the Greek bailout deal all week from across the political spectrum. “This negotiation result is a German diktat and nothing other than blackmail,” said Dietmar Bartsch, the deputy head of a left-wing party that has about 10% of the seats in the German parliament.
Many in the German media also attacked the agreement. The online edition of Der Spiegel called it a “catalogue of cruelties” toward Greece, while the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said that Merkel’s conservative government had come out looking “ugly, hard-hearted and stingy” in the eyes of Europe and the world. “Every cent of aid to Greece that the Germans tried to save will have to be spent two and three times over in the coming years to polish that image again,” the center-left newspaper wrote.
The fallout has the potential to damage Germany’s hard-won ranking in the world’s esteem. In recent years, polls have suggested that Germany had shed its public perception as the perpetrator of horrific atrocities in World War II and successfully rebranded itself as a beneficent economic power with modest ambitions on the world stage. An international survey of more than 26,000 people in 2013 found that Germany was the most popular country in the world.
But the crisis in Greece has hurt that popularity. When the terms of the bailout deal were announced on Monday, a campaign to boycott German products started spreading on social media, alongside vicious cartoons comparing Germany’s current leaders to the Nazis. As Spiegel Online put it, “The German government destroyed seven decades of post-war diplomacy in a single weekend.”
In the coming weeks, Germany will have a chance to assuage some of that criticism by agreeing to forgive a portion of Greece’s debt — and doing so would be in line with a growing international consensus. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund, which has helped bankroll both of the bailouts Greece has received since 2010, suggested that it would not support the third bailout unless part of Greece’s debt burden is eased or erased. “Greece’s debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far,” the Fund wrote in its report.
France, the second biggest power in the eurozone after Germany, immediately got behind the idea of debt relief, and this week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will also help push for it when he visits Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris.
Standing defiant through all that diplomatic pressure would put Germany in a position it has not known in decades. It would be seen as the bully of Europe, no longer helping wayward members of the eurozone get their books in order but punishing them with all the influence its economic power affords.
Forbrig, the foreign policy expert, says that is an image most Germans would hate to project. “People find it hard to accept that if you do take on a leadership role, you will single yourself out for attacks and criticism,” he says. But as Germany asserts itself in Europe and beyond, it will have to learn to take such attacks in stride, even at the cost of its cherished popularity.