By Stephen Brown
Germany’s parliament approved an extension of Greece’s bailout on Friday but a record number of dissenters from Angela Merkel’s conservatives underscored growing scepticism in Berlin about whether a new Greek government can be trusted to deliver on its reform pledges.
With Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble promising not to let Greece “blackmail” its euro zone partners, 542 members of the Bundestag voted “yes” to the extension, while 32 opposed it and 13 abstained.
It was the biggest majority for a euro zone bailout since the crisis erupted five years ago, in part because Merkel’s year-old “grand coalition” enjoys a dominant position in the Bundestag lower house.
But 29 of the 32 “no” votes came from Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) — more conservative rebels than any other lower house vote.
“We Germans should do everything to keep Europe together,” said Schaeuble, the 72-year-old political veteran who has clashed repeatedly with the new leftist government in Athens, notably his Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis.
The parliamentary debate showed widespread misgivings about Greece. The broader German population also grown more sceptical since Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took power last month, with a poll this week showing only 21 percent of Germans back an extension for Greece.
“Look at Tsipras, look at Varoufakis: would you buy a used car from them?” CDU dissident Klaus-Peter Wilsch said in parliament. The CSU said it was Athens’ “last chance” to get its act together.
Top-selling German daily Bild had staged a front-page campaign for a “NEIN!” in the Bundestag vote, the only big parliamentary hurdle in Europe for the four-month extension to the Greek bailout programme.
“Patience and readiness to show solidiarty with Greece is coming to an end,” read a front-page editiorial in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper titled “The Danger”. It said the big risk was that Greeks would misconstrue the parliament vote as a sign that all was well.
Although the extension gives the Greeks a lifeline, they face an April deadline for convincing Germany and other euro zone partners that they are serious about their reform drive. If that fails, Athens would run out of cash, likely triggering an unprecedented exit from the single currency bloc.
Schaeuble sought to reassure parliament that no new aid was at stake for the euro zone’s most heavily-indebted country. He said solidarity among members of the single currency “doesn’t mean you can blackmail each other”.
While Merkel and Schaeuble’s tough stance on Greece goes down well with German voters, the euro zone crisis has created space for a new eurosceptic party to the right of the CDU/CSU – the fast-growing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
AfD leader Bernd Lucke wants Greece to leave the euro and said extending the bailout was “a bad decision for Germany and for Greece … because economic misery in Greece will continue”.
But the European Commission’s financial affairs chief Pierre Moscovici reminded Berlin in an interview with German radio just before the debate that allowing any country to exit the euro zone would merely raise the question “who is leaving next?”.