German Chancellor Angela Merkel brings her tough-talking advocacy for austerity to ground zero of the European debt crisis Tuesday, and police in Athens are so nervous they are employing as many security measures as they would for a visit by a U.S. president.
Police have flooded the streets with 7,000 additional officers and hundreds more undercover agents, stationed snipers on rooftops, closed a half dozen subway stations and sent helicopters to hover over the city to help protect the German chancellor from expected massive demonstrations. Police have also banned protests outside Merkel’s hotel and along the route she will travel, effectively creating a 300-foot-wide bubble separating her from the Greek public as she negotiates the future of Greece’s finances.
The country where democracy was born has had to go hat in hand to wealthier European neighbors to deal with crippling debt, and nobody has coughed up more than Germany – to the chagrin of many German politicians and voters who see the Greek economy as bloated and riddled with corruption.
But in Greece, three years of austerity and six years of recession have pushed unemployment of young workers to above 50 percent, forced middle-class families to soup kitchens, and even brought into parliament Golden Dawn, an anti-immigrant and anti-Euro party that many call fascist and neo-Nazi.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who usually weighs his words carefully, recently warned that Greece’s social fabric was on the verge of cracking. He cited Golden Dawn’s ascendance as evidence that Greece could suffer the same fate as Germany’s Weimar Republic, whose own economic collapse led to the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s.
Samaras hopes to convince Merkel and Greece’s other creditors that they need to lower demands to cut government spending. The “troika” of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank are withholding a massive loan until the Greek government makes the cuts. Without the funds, Greece admits it will run out of money next month.
But Merkel is expected to reiterate demands the Greek government cut further, and that’s why the police are so worried. The country’s labor unions have called for protests, as has the main opposition party, Syriza.
“We want to send a message to not only our government but also to Europe that there’s a lot of people here, the majority of society, who can’t stand these measures of austerity, and this is a common fight that we have with other European people in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France, against austerity,” Syriza press officer Christos Staikos tells ABC News. “This policy destroyed all the Eurozone.”
Samaras and most analysts argue that during a time when governments and people are too weak to spend much money, Merkel needs to help facilitate growth in Greece.
“The economic program that is being proposed is too extreme,” Nicholas Economides, a professor of economics at New York University Stern School of Business, argued to ABC News. “The troika is asking for cuts that are way too big given the circumstances, and they would only increase Greece’s recession.”
The divide between Merkel, the creditors and much of the Greek public mirrors that between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney when it comes to the Eurozone crisis. Obama has sent Timothy Geithner to Europe at least a half dozen times to advocate for greater investment and growth. Top Romney adviser Glenn Hubbard, on the other hand, recently argued that Obama’s attempts to encourage growth over austerity “reveal ignorance of the causes of the crisis.”