Whether it will ever be fair to blame Angela Merkel for ‘breaking’ Greece is debatable.
But if the eurozone’s weakest link does default this week and is eventually forced out of the single currency, it seems inevitable that the German chancellor, Europe’s most powerful leader, will ‘own’ the Greek problem and that a decision to let Athens go would profoundly shape her legacy.
For months, the notoriously cautious Merkel has been wrestling with the question of whether to risk a ‘Grexit’ and accept the financial, economic, and geopolitical backlash it would surely unleash.
Unlike her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who sent abundant signals in recent months that he could accept a eurozone that does not include Greece, Merkel has been determined to avoid such an outcome, according to her closest advisers.
If Greece ends up leaving the eurozone anyway, many in Germany and elsewhere will blame the left-wing government of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. It has infuriated its partners with what they have perceived to be an erratic, confrontational stance in the debt talks.
Tsipras’s call for a referendum on Europe’s latest bailout offer, just before Greece is due to run out of cash, made it easy for Merkel, 60, to say enough is enough, and threaten to pull the plug.
But it will be Merkel, more than any other European leader, who will have to sort through the rubble of a ‘Grexit’ and answer the question of why disaster was not averted.
A Greek exit could lead to a humanitarian crisis on Europe’s southern rim, spark contagion in eurozone countries that are only just emerging from years of deep recession, and stoke a fiery new debate about German austerity policies and Merkel’s handling of the crisis.
Allowing Greece to exit would be by far the boldest move she has taken since coming to power nearly a decade ago.
In private conversations, Merkel has acknowledged as much, saying her biggest fear is that Germany could be blamed for “blowing up Europe” for the third time in a century.
With a British referendum on its membership in the European Union looming, the standoff with Russia over Ukraine unresolved and the continent struggling to find answers to a migration crisis and growing threat from Islamic extremists, chaos in Greece would send a horrible signal to the world about the state of Europe.
“Europe’s internal crisis is playing out in a dangerous, unstable geopolitical environment,” former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer wrote in a recent article for Project Syndicate. “Preventing the EU from falling apart will require, first and foremost, a strategic solution to the Greek crisis.”
It is the lack of a ‘big- picture’ strategy that Merkel’s critics have faulted her for since the eurozone crisis first erupted in Greece.
She has stuck doggedly to her step-by-step approach, in which aid is doled out in return for commitments to economic reform and deep spending cuts. Some economists — and the new Greek government — argue that this strategy has crushed the country.
In recent weeks, Merkel has come under criticism for letting Schäuble take the lead in the negotiations with Greece, even though his scepticism is well known.
As far back as 2012, the German finance minister was arguing that the eurozone might be better off without Greece.
Still, it is difficult to fault Merkel for not pushing hard for an agreement behind the scenes. Back in March, during Tsipras’s first visit to Berlin as prime minister, she spent more than five hours with him at a dinner in the Chancellery, going through Greek reform pledges line by line.
“What we told the Greeks is that if they came up with a viable plan, then Merkel would fight for it,” a senior aide said after the meeting.
For now, the sense that she did her best to reach a deal with Tsipras, and the widespread feeling in Germany that the Greek government has behaved irresponsibly in the negotiations, is likely to ensure broad domestic support.
Over the weekend, politicians from across the spectrum took to the airwaves to condemn Tsipras and back Merkel. Influential conservative media, such as top-selling daily Bild and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, have also swung behind her.
How long the German consensus lasts, however, is an open question. Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, will be quick to turn on her if the economic and financial costs of an eventual ‘Grexit’ prove unwieldy.
And Germany’s allies in Europe and beyond could also begin to question her handling of the crisis.
The UShas been pushing hard behind the scenes for Merkel to keep Athens in the currency bloc at all costs.
More worrying than complaints from Washington would be cracks in the European consensus on Greece.
France has toed the German line until now. But at a decisive meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Saturday, France broke with Germany and other countries, arguing in favour of extending Greece’s bailout to allow a referendum to take place, eurozone officials said.
The French were slapped down and the Greek request for an extension denied.
Now Merkel, barring a miraculous 11th-hour deal with Athens, must face the consequences.