Athens – The EU-Turkey refugee pact must be implemented and Greece must continue reforming after it emerged from eight years of bailouts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said on her first visit to Athens since 2014.
“We will continue working constructively with Greece to improve the situation,” Merkel said after talks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Thousands of people remain stranded in inadequate conditions in refugee camps on Greek Aegean islands, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed in line with the pact which sought to stymie the inflow of refugees and migrants in 2016.
Under the deal, only confirmed refugees are allowed to proceed toward the European Union, while economic migrants are being sent back to Turkey. The processing, however, is too slow and the camps have been overwhelmed from the start.
Merkel praised the effort of the Greek people “in tough times” of austerity dictated by the financial crisis of 2010 and voiced optimism that after reforms their country will be capable of financing itself commercially.
Merkel’s two-day visit came four months after Greece emerged from its third and final bailout package.
During the austerity years, many Greeks – whose average income dropped by a quarter during the period – saw her as the symbol of their hardship and the visit attracted huge attention, with the national TV station ERT televising her arrival live from the airport.
After meeting Tsipras, Merkel also urged politicians to back an agreement with the neighbouring Macedonia, under which it is to change its name and end a decades-old diplomatic dispute.
Even as she arrived in Athens, the government in Skopje was struggling to muster the support in parliament to push the deal through and rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia.
With that, the former Yugoslav republic would sufficiently differentiate itself from the ancient Hellenic province.
After Skopje does its part, it will be up to Tsipras to push the agreement past fierce opposition to the deal in the Greek population, in parliament and within his own coalition.
Only after that would Greece stop blocking Macedonia from joining NATO and other international organizations, and allow it to begin EU membership talks.
Merkel is scheduled to meet President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, have lunch with business representatives and talk to opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Protests against Merkel
The last time she visited, in 2014, Tsipras had not yet ascended to power. The left-wing politician pushed through the bulk of the unpopular reforms.
During a previous visit, in 2012, she was met by massive protests at her tough stance on the the conditions of Greece’s international bailout.
Protests against her have been called again.
Police fired tear gas at a group of protesters to stop them from reaching the government headquarters for a demonstration.
The crowd chanted slogans blaming Merkel for the hardship caused by the austerity measures. According to local media reports, the situation calmed quickly.