German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday heaped praise on Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in a show of post-austerity solidarity during a visit to Athens, lending diplomatic support for a name change for Greece’s neighbour Macedonia.
Merkel’s arrival was in marked contrast to her last official visit to Athens in 2014 when she faced angry anti-austerity protests.
‘Through cooperation we can all have a better future rather than through nationalism, which frequently led Europe to disaster,’ Merkel said.
‘We Germans know particularly well what these disasters mean, because of the bleak history of National Socialism.’
Merkel congratulated Tsipras on his ‘decisive action’ on Greece’s name row with Macedonia.
The former constituent part of Yugoslavia shares the name of a northern Greek province.
Tsipras and Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev have agreed in principle for Skopje to change the name of the country to ‘the Republic of North Macedonia.’
But Skopje lawmakers have still to vote through a move which entails four constitutional amendments and requires two thirds support in parliament.
The name deal will permit the Republic of North Macedonia to join NATO and the EU, the German chancellor said and ‘is in the interest of all of Europe.’
Tsipras described it as ‘a model accord’ which will bring stability and growth to the region.
‘Greece was part of the problem and has become part of the solution,’ he said after two hours of talks with Merkel.
‘She is not welcome in Greece’
Merkel visited Skopje before last year’s referendum on the change to show support.
Yet the issue remains divisive in Greece where one party in Tsipras’s coalition opposes it, threatening his parliamentary majority.
The main conservative New Democracy opposition is also against the name change and wants new elections which are officially not due before October.
Merkel is to address the subject in Friday talks with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and then with New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose party is an EU Parliament ally of her Christian Democrats.
Despite the positive tone on Thursday some 200 protesters brandished anti-Merkel placards in central Athens with slogans such as ‘Go back Merkel!’
‘Merkel has again come to Greece to pressure the government,’ pensioner Melina Kotsaki said. ‘She is not welcome in Greece.’
Tensions were high between Berlin and Athens during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis when Merkel’s government insisted on tough austerity measures for Greece in return for international bailouts.
Tsipras was a fervent opponent of the austerity measures when he came to power in 2015, but changed tack six months later under pressure from the European Union.
His message on Thursday was of tolerance and unity.
‘The major danger today for Europe is not political differences between forces that believe in Europe, but the emergence of anti-European powers that threaten it. ‘
Greek daily Kathimerini quoted Merkel as saying Greece had its full support as she embarked on her visit saluting the ‘close ties’ between the two EU states and NATO partners.
‘I know that the past few years have been very difficult for many people in Greece. Europe showed its solidarity through three rescue programmes and supported Greece in its course of reforms towards fiscal and economic stability,’ Kathimerini quoted the German leader as saying, hailing the ‘great progress’ made since.