Monday, 6 July 2015

Berliners and Madriders see Greek referendum very differently

Berliners seem calm about yesterday's 'no' vote in Greece, but they also don't seem inclined to cut the Greeks any slack.

Ahead of yesterday's Greek referendum, I was in Madrid for the weekend with some friends from Brussels. I arrived back in Berlin last night. The contrast between the opinions I encountered in these two capitals could not be more stark.

During Saturday's Madrid gay pride parade, one of the highlights was a large Greek flag making its way down the parade route. The flag was greeted by huge cheers, just a day before the Greeks were set to go to the polls for a referendum which was being billed by EU leaders as an in-out vote on the country's euro membership.

The flag was, I believe, carried by the contingent of Podemos, Spain's far-left opposition party which is closely aligned with Syriza, the far-left governing party in Greece. But the cheers weren't for Podemos. They were in solidarity with the Greek people. This sentiment was largely reflected in the conversations I had with people there. They were sympathetic, and supportive of a debt write-off.

I flew back to Berlin yesterday afternoon, and by the time I arrived home I turned on the TV to learn the result - the Greeks had overwhelmingly voted 'no' to the bailout terms. As if on cue, suddenly a dramatic thunderstorm rolled in over the German capital. Flashes of lightning and loud thunder went on for hours.

Today, the clouds have cleared and the sun is shining. I'm sitting at a cafe in Schöneberg watching people stroll along the sidewalk, wafted by a cool breeze. I had to run a number of errands today to get things set up in my new apartment, and I was also able to meet up with a few German friends who live here. Unsurprisingly, they felt very differently about the Greece situation than the people I talked to in Madrid. They all said they think Greece should leave the eurozone. Their attitude about the whole situation could be described as chiefly as annoyance, but also fatigue.

Reporters in Athens are saying that Greek voters did not view yesterday's referendum as an in-out vote on the eurozone. But I can tell you it seems that Germans see it very differently. And given that ordinary Germans will bear much more of the burden of a debt write off than the ordinary Spaniard, it is easier for those in Southern Europe to express solidarity.

Ironically, the views I heard in Spain this weekend do not at all match those of Spain's political leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often portrayed as the lone woman standing between Greece and further debt write-off. But there are several EU leaders in her shadow that are even more adamantly opposed, chief among them Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He will soon face a general election, and his fear at this point is that if Greece gets special treatment, Spanish voters will demand to know why they didn't get special treatment in their own austerity regimes. Portuguese and Irish voters will be asking the same question - and perhaps also Italian and French voters. This is what Angela Merkel has meant when she refers to "moral hazard".

And yet Rajoy knows that contagion is still a very real risk, and that if the situation in Greece spirals out of control, Portugal could be next and then possibly Spain. So he is desperate to keep Greece in the euro while making sure that its bailout conditions are not dramatically more lenient than Spain's.

Because as much as the Spanish people may feel solidarity with the Greek people in their time of hardship, tribal mentalities here in Europe still mean that they would resent Greece getting a much better deal than they did when it comes to the bailout.

With all sides having so many different perspectives and different motivations, it's going to be an interesting few days.

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