As police fired tear gas and stun grenades to halt angry crowds chanting anti- austerity slogans and waving swastika flags, Merkel’s host, prime minister Antonis Samaras, welcomed her as a “friend”.
Blamed by many Greeks for imposing draconian budget cuts in exchange for aid, Merkel reaffirmed Berlin’s commitment to keep the debt-crippled Greek state inside Europe’s single currency.
“I have come here today in full knowledge that the period Greece is living through right now is an extremely difficult one for the Greeks and many people are suffering,” Merkel said during a news conference with Samaras just a few hundred yards from the mayhem on Syntagma Square, outside parliament.
“Precisely for that reason I want to say that much of the path is already behind us,” she added, offering a public display of support to Samaras’s three-month-old government on her first visit to Greece since 2007.
She tried to reassure her hosts that their reforms would eventually pay off, but also made clear that Greece, which has seen its unemployment rate surge to nearly 25% and economic output shrink by a fifth, would not solve its problems overnight.
Samaras promised to implement the economic reforms necessary to restore confidence: “The Greek people are bleeding but are determined to stay in the euro,” he said.
On the other side of the parliament building, tens of thousands of demonstrators defied a ban and gathered to voice their displeasure with the German leader, whom many blame for forcing painful cuts on Greece in exchange for two EU-IMF bailout packages worth over €200bn.
Greek police fired tear gas and stun grenades when protesters tried to break through a barrier to reach the cordoned-off area where Merkel and Samaras were meeting. Some protesters pelted police with rocks, bottles and sticks.
Four people dressed in Second World War-era German military uniforms and riding on a small jeep, waved black-white-and-red swastika flags and stuck their hands out in the Hitler salute.
Banners read “Merkel out, Greece is not your colony” and “This is not a European Union, it’s slavery”.
Some 6,000 police officers were deployed, including anti-terrorist units and rooftop snipers, to provide security during the six-hour visit. German sites in the Greek capital, including the embassy and the Goethe Institute, were under special protection.
After steering clear of Greece for the past five years, Merkel decided to visit now for several reasons.
She was keen to show support for Samaras, a fellow conservative, as he struggles to impose more cuts on a society fraying at the edges after five years of recession.
With a year to go until Germany holds a parliamentary election, Merkel also hoped to neutralise opposition criticism at home that she has neglected Greece and contributed to its woes by insisting on crushing budget cuts.
After her government flirted earlier this year with the idea of allowing Greece to exit the eurozone, she now appears determined to keep it in — at least until the German election is out of the way.
Greece is in talks with its “troika” of lenders — the EU, ECB, and IMF — on the next tranche of a €130bn loan package, its second bailout since 2010.
Without the €31.5bn tranche, Greece says it will run out of money by the end of November.
Merkel said the aid payment was “urgently needed” but stopped short of promising that the funds would flow.
“The troika report will come when it is ready.
“Being thorough is more important than being quick,” Merkel said.
“We are working hard on this, but we must resolve all the problems,” she added.
“I think we’ll see light at the end of the tunnel.”