European dysfunction chart of the day, Greece vs Germany edition

By Felix Salmon
May 31, 2012
Mark Dow has found an astonishing set of results from a February opinion poll in Greece.

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Mark Dow has found an astonishing set of results from a February opinion poll in Greece; it’s hard to imagine that Greek attitudes to Germany have improved since then. Here’s just one of the 13 slides:

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The final question, in particular, renders rather unfunny the joke about the German Chancellor flying to Athens for some meetings, and being stopped at immigration. “Name?” she’s asked. “Angela Merkel.” “Occupation?” “No, I’m just here for a couple of days.”

For his part, Dow seizes on a different question — one which shows that 51% of Greeks attribute Germany’s strong economy to corruption, and only 18% attribute it to competitiveness. Greek public opinion, it seems, is decidedly of the view that the only way Greece can compete with Germany is to become a lot more corrupt.

Stephan Faris, in his profile of Alexis Tsipras’s far-left Syriza party, writes:

Tsipras possesses not just a deep knowledge of the Greek electorate but a populist’s knack for channeling mass emotion…

Polls show Greeks are pulled by two seemingly contradictory desires. Roughly two-thirds of the country opposes the bailout conditions. Yet almost 80 percent say they want to stay in the euro…

Tsipras’s demand that other EU countries — namely Germany — renegotiate the bailout deal on Athens’s terms reflects a seeming indifference to the very real failures in Greece’s economy.

Looking at the poll, I see something different. The overwhelming majority of the Greek electorate believes that Germany, quite literally, owes Greece money. In the decades since World War II, Greece has been waiting patiently for its rightful reparations — and instead it’s finding itself in the midst of another attempted takeover by Germany, a Fourth Reich. Looked at through this lens, the Syriza position doesn’t seem contradictory or indifferent to the realities of the Greek economy. Instead, it’s noble resistance to a dangerous hegemon.

All of which is to say that the relationship between Germany and Greece is irredeemably oppositional, at this point. The Germans think of Greeks as corrupt scroungers, who just want to live on the fruits of Germany’s productive labor; the Greeks think of Germany as, well Nazis. (Check out page 2 of the opinion poll: when asked “What is the first word that comes in your mind when you hear the word Germany?”, and given one spontaneous reply, 32% of Greeks said something about Hitler, Nazism, or the Third Reich. And in general, again, the overwhelming majority of answers were highly negative.

This is not, in any real sense, a European Union: if two people with these feelings for each other were married, everybody would agree that they should get divorced.

Looked at from the US, it’s easy to see Tsipras as playing a deeply tactical game: he’s advocating that Greece call Germany’s bluff, and thereby continue to get EU financing while reducing the amount of austerity that Greece has to impose on itself in return. But looking at this poll, I don’t see tactics: I think that Tsipras is simply reflecting very real Greek attitudes to Germany — attitudes which consider Germany to be not only fascist, but also deeply corrupt. If you think you’re owed money by such a country, you’re not going to be particularly willing to accept onerous bailout conditions in order to receive it.

All of which says to me that Grexit is inevitable, sooner or later. These two countries have pretty much nothing in common, bar their current currency. And now the tensions caused by that common currency are surfacing in particularly ugly ways. Before things get much worse, it would surely be better for both of them if Greece decided to go its own way.

And yet, there’s a silver lining, here. As far as I know, these attitudes to Germany are not shared by most people in Spain, or Portugal, or Italy. It makes sense for the EU to allow Greece to leave the euro, and then to put a big and credible firewall up around Iberia. Greece really is a special case. And the other 14 members of the euro, if they join together, still have the ability to remain together.

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