This was a particularly German brand of the charm offensive, and so it began on Monday morning at their embassy in D.C. with cookies, coffee, freebie pens, and a three-page fact sheet — distributed to journalists — laying out years of generosity aimed at Greece in the form of Europe-funded bailouts.
“Good morning,” Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Peter Wittig, said as he took a seat at the head of a conference table with about 10 journalists.
He opened a yellow folder and glanced at his own copy of the fact sheet.
“There’s been no lack or drama in the last hours,” he continued. “I thought I’d give you our take.”
The ink was barely dry on the latest — and most punishing — deal to keep a foundering Greece in the euro zone. And based on accounts from Brussels, site of the marathon negotiations, Germany had all but lowered Greece to its knees. Masses on Twitter said the Germans had stolen Greece’s sovereignty, holding Athens hostage to unreasonable demands. Paul Krugman accused Germany or “pure vindictiveness.” Germany was both the victor and the villain.
“Leadership comes with strong criticism,” Wittig said. “We’re not used to that, quite frankly.”
He noted that Germany, unlike the U.S., hasn’t spend decades as a rules enforcer on the global scene.
“Of course we’re facing criticism. Do we like that? No. It’s sort of new in our collective consciousness.”
But Germany says the facts are on its side, and that nothing about the latest deal was vindictive. It was about avoiding the mistakes of the previous bailouts, in which taxpayer money was lent from European taxpayers to Greece in exchange for austerity and reforms that were never fully implemented. The Germans say that Greece has so fair received $440 billion from creditors — about $38,500 per citizen. Some $60 billion comes from Germany.
And since then, erratic behavior of the new Greek government has only deepened the sense of skepticism.
“We of course have learned the lessons of the past two [bailout] programs,” Wittig said. “They did not work out as envisaged, mostly because there was a lack of implementation. So in crafting this third program, we are eager to draw the right lessons.”
In a sense, Germany came out of the weekend negotiations with everything it wanted. There was no debt haircut — something the Germans vehemently opposed. And the austerity package thrust upon Greece was so severe, it doubles as a warning message to other nationalist parties (like Greece’s Syriza) that might want to challenge the euro zone collective.
The question, of course, is whether this third bailout will prove so harsh that it solves nothing and only does more damage to Greece in the long run. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, walked away from Athens with a deal even more punishing than that which he and Greek voters had rejected earlier this month. In the end, he U-turned because Greeks feared their country’s departure from the single-currency zone far more than the rest of Europe did.
“I would not call this a capitulation,” Wittig said.
He said the Greeks weren’t forced to accept anything. That is, they had a choice between accepting the hard-line terms and abandoning the Euro.
“It was a choice,” Wittig said. “The other choice would have been to go it alone.
“We don’t underestimate the sacrifice the Greek people are making. There is no sense of glee about this.”