Since the Greek crisis began over five years ago, the Social Democrats have tried to present themselves as Germany’s good cops – whether in opposition or in government.
Whilst calling for Greece to implement reforms and comply with its bailout terms, the center-left SPD has also tried to show some solidarity with the Greeks. It has been critical of the narrow focus on austerity over the past five years, arguing that a parallel growth strategy was required.
However, party leader Sigmar Gabriel now seems to be ditching that policy, taking an increasing harsh tone with the radical left Greek government in recent weeks.
The deputy chancellor, who also serves as economy and energy minister in Angela Merkel’s left-right coalition government, was one of the most vehement critics of the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, after Greeks overwhelmingly voted “no” in Sunday’s referendum on whether to accept its lenders’ bailout conditions.
Mr. Gabriel, a political bruiser known for not pulling punches, said on Sunday night that Mr. Tsipras had “torn down the last bridges” and that there was “hardly any chance left for a compromise” to be made between Brussels and Athens.
“Gabriel has realized that the SPD has failed to really have its own European policy concept. He looks like Ms. Merkel’s poodle.”
He told the Tagesspiegel daily that “Tsipras and his government were leading the Greek people down a path of bitter sacrifice and hopelessness,” accusing the Greek prime minister of having tricked his people into believing that a “no” would strengthen Greece’s negotiating position.
Already, in the run-up to the referendum, at a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel it was Mr. Gabriel who had sounded toughest. “That Greek citizens will decide in a referendum is absolutely legitimate,” he said. “But it must be crystal clear what is being decided. It is, at the core, yes or no to remaining in the euro zone.”
Yet, on the Monday after the vote, he seemed to back-track, saying that the Greek people’s decision deserved respect and the country must not be abandoned.
It’s not the first time Mr. Gabriel seemed to zig zag on Greece. When the referendum was first announced, he cautiously welcomed it at first and then two days later he told the parliamentary party “It would be best if Mr. Tsipras called off the referendum.”
Furthermore in an interview with Stern magazine this week, the SPD leader said that letting Greece into the euro zone had been “naïve,” but that standing by and watching it get into more and more trouble had been even worse. The lessons were to “never look the other way when a country does not stick to the rules in Europe.”
This switching between diplomacy and aggression has aggravated many members of his own party.
Klaus Barthel, a left-wing member of the SPD, said that “Gabriel’s comments are incomprehensible. Mr. Tsipras has made it clear that this referendum result was not aimed against the E.U. or the euro.”
“We will only resolve the current crisis with talks and the solidarity of action, not with verbal attacks,” the party’s deputy floor leader, Axel Schäfer, told Die Zeit.
The head of the SPD’s youth wing, Johanna Uekermann, accused Mr. Gabriel of himself tearing down rather than building bridges with Greece.
However, other prominent SPD politicians have also been critical of Greece. Martin Schulz, the European Parliament president, accused Mr. Tsipras of “manipulating the Greek people.” In an interview with Handelsblatt he said “It’s almost like demagoguery.”
According to Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist with the Free University in Berlin who has written extensively on the SPD, the party is attempting to carve out a separate policy from the Christian Democrats.
“Gabriel has realized that the SPD has failed to really have its own European policy concept. He looks like Ms. Merkel’s poodle when it comes to Europe and that is something he is not comfortable with,” Mr. Neugebauer said.
The SPD had tried to come up with a distinct policy, when it suggested common euro bonds, but the proposal proved unpopular in Germany, and when Ms. Merkel made it clear it was a non-starter, saying that there would be no euro-zone debt-sharing “as long as I live,” the party dropped the idea.
The SPD has been junior partner to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats since the 2013 elections. When Greece was last bailed out in 2012, it was in opposition but backed the second bailout in a parliamentary vote.
In another Bundestag vote this February on extending the last Greek bailout, 29 members of the CDU voted against, while the SPD lawmakers all backed the extension. It is estimated that around 70 CDU parliamentarians are prepared to vote against any third Greek bailout, if the E.U. leaders agree to help out Greece further at Sunday’s make-or-break summit.
Mr. Neugebauer believes the SPD on the other hand will back another bailout, but will possibly use the rebellion in the CDU to push Ms. Merkel for concessions, “which may include debt restructuring” for Greece, a key demand of Mr. Tsipras’ left wing government that until now has been a red line for many conservative German policymakers.
Mr. Gabriel, an instinctual politician who likes to present himself as a man of the people, is well aware that a tough stance on Greece is popular. And he knows that ordinary SPD voters are probably more concerned about more of their money going to Greece than about European solidarity.
According to a poll by public broadcaster ZDF, 51 percent of Germans now favor a Grexit and 70 percent are against any new bailouts.
Mr. Neugebauer argued that Mr. Gabriel’s harsh reaction was also an expression of real disappointment with the way Mr. Tsipras and his Syriza party have behaved. “He is someone who gets angry very quickly,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Yet, his tough stance on Greece risks coming across as opportunism. Despite the government implementing many of the party’s key policies since entering into a coalition, such as a minimum wage and earlier retirement, the SPD is stuck in the ghetto of around 25 percent in opinion polls.
If Mr. Gabriel wants to have any chance of becoming chancellor after the 2017 elections, he will need to form a coalition with the far-left Left Party, the main opposition party, which has links to Syriza and is vehemently anti-austerity, and with the left-leaning Greens.
Tactically, that could mean moving the SPD to the center in order to steal support from Ms. Merkel’s CDU, and leaving the other parties to attract the more left-wing voters.
Yet, if Greece bashing comes across as political calculation it could backfire.
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered German politics from Berlin for the past decade. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.