GERMAN CHANCELLOR ANGELA Merkel arrives in Greece today to support its embattled government amid planned new anti-austerity protests, her first visit there since the economic crisis erupted more than two years ago.
Thousands of police will create a safety zone for Merkel’s meetings with conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and President Carolos Papoulias, aiming to keep demonstrators at arm’s length.
Some 6,500 officers backed by water cannon and a helicopter have been mobilised for her six-hour visit, the first since 2010.
Merkel had faced criticism in Germany for failing to visit Athens thus far during the crisis, unlike EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and eurozone chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
In August, when Samaras visited Berlin, Merkel had insisted that she wanted the debt-wracked country to stay in the euro and pledged German help after crisis talks with the Greek prime minister.
Merkel’s office on Monday said she would convey a message of support for “ambitious” cuts already in place in Athens and encouragement to stay the course.
Samaras will greet Merkel at Athens airport at 10.30AM GMT and the two will hold talks at 11.15AM, after which they will address the press. Merkel is then scheduled to see President Papoulias at 1.45PM.
Leftist and Communist-affiliated unions are holding separate protests at 10.00 and a three-hour strike has been called in Athens from midday onwards.
The police declared a ban on “public gatherings and demonstrations” in a broad section of the city centre that includes the German embassy, parliament and the offices of government but the union gatherings lie outside this area and will be held as planned.
Merkel’s route from the airport is also off-bounds. The main Greek unions said in a statement:
Syndicates and all of society will give a dynamic response to the plans of Merkel and European powers that are imposed by creditors and implemented by the government.
The German leader is a popular hate figure in Greece, often blamed for harsh austerity measures imposed by the government in return for vital international aid, and has in the past been depicted as Adolf Hitler in tabloid caricatures.
Samaras has assured Merkel that she will be “welcomed in the appropriate way for the leader of a major power and a friendly country”, but many in Greece object to the visit.
The visit comes at a crucial time for the heavily indebted country, which is in the midst of negotiations with its international creditors over a 13.5-billion-euro ($17.5 billion) package of cuts.
A positive outcome is vital to unblock a 31.5-billion-euro installment from Greece’s EU-IMF bailout package, which is needed to recapitalise banks and repay outstanding domestic debts in a country that is heading for a sixth straight year of recession.