In recent months, that familiar stern, cropped-hair silhouette has become emblematic of discipline, austerity, and amongst the more optimistic, salvation. But to pick a single label for Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, would leave Europe divided - oppressor, or saviour?
On June 29th, 2015, Greece's failure to requite €1.73 billion to the IMF made it the first European nation to join the list of countries that have defaulted on IMF loans; a register that includes pariah states, dictatorships and war-ravaged lands. Surely, say some, we should reserve our sympathy for the Greek people, the pensioners who are now biting their fingernails and the youth, 1 in 4 of whom face the prospect of certain unemployment. Yet, in the complexity of this crisis, it is hard to know where to point the finger of blame.
Enter Ms Merkel.
At the negotiating table, sources say her terms were draconian. According to the New York Times, Alex Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, had once exclaimed in frustration, "The more we move towards them, the further they move away from us." (Landon Thomas Jr, The New York Times).The frustration was tangible, and brittle. When it finally shattered like a plate at a Greek wedding, it was not out of celebration, but bitterness. Tsipras walked away from the table in favour of holding a referendum in his own country, and he would eventually have his head forced down by the creditors to drink from a cup of austerity measures even more stringent than the ones he had absconded from. To the rest of the world, it looked like he was driven out by an unsmiling, phlegmatic and practical-to-a-fault Ms Merkel.
By looking through a lens like this, one finds a storybook scenario, a black-and-white panorama of the oppressed and their oppressors, antagonists and their victims.
However, there is another side to the story. This perspective, ironically, shares traits with the satirical stereotype of the German. It is unemotional. apathetic, perhaps. But still based on cold, hard facts.
Greece has had a long history of poor fiscal management - if one wanted to be pedantic, a debt crisis in the 4th century BC marked the start of this trend, and if one wanted to be relevant, the Greek government has plunged into five sovereign defaults since the 19th century. A joke has been doing the rounds lately, a new term alternative to "going Dutch": going Greek. According to the sardonic definition, this is to go for a night out with friends, eat a lot, drink a lot, and then realise you have forgotten your wallet when the bill arrives. Essentially, an analogy of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Caught up in the revelry of the occasion, the then profligate Greek administration seemed to be unaware that €9 billion had fallen out of their pocket. It would be unreasonable to label the sporting event as a cause, but it is certainly symptomatic of a pattern of poor economic policy when a country emerges from a stinging austerity spell (2001) and then hosts the most expensive Olympic Games up to that point.
One should, by all means, feel sympathetic towards the plight of the ordinary Greek people, who have little say in national financial management. But Tsipras, a lone leftist figure in a wave of Conservative governments coming to power around the world, had miscalculated his manoeuvres. Aside from frustration, one could easily say that his decision to abandon the negotiations was an old trick of diplomacy, a ploy to get Merkel to blink, for her to goad them back in with less stringent offers. It did not work, and it could be argued that Merkel had every right to give him a stark choice: stay, or leave. After all, Germany has just bailed out Greece for the third time, against its own soft spot for a Grexit, capitulating to Juncker's condemnation of the move. Moreover, Germany's helping hand will be extended, indirectly, by the country's taxpayers. Suddenly, the bailout begins to resemble a moloch, especially considering that there was no bailout clause when Greece joined the European Union.
So, the question stands. Is Merkel the hero of this debacle, or the villain? Maybe she is both. Maybe her interaction with the present Greek administration is similar to that of a mother with good intentions trying to wrangle with her obstinate teenager, to whom the word "unfair" rises to the tongue a little too quickly.