But even as she said that she had come as a “good friend and a real partner,” not a “taskmaster or teacher, to give grades,” many Greeks saw her visit as a provocation by the arch-nemesis of the euro crisis whose austerity medicine is killing the Greek middle class.
The visit was intended to offer support to the coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, which is struggling to agree on a 13.5 billion euro austerity package of spending cuts and tax hikes demanded by Greece’s troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — as a precondition for releasing a 31 billion euro installment of aid the country needs to meet expenses. But it coincided with a report from the International Monetary Fund that underscores the challenges that lie ahead.
Greece would miss its five-year target for debt reduction, the report said, with total indebtedness falling only to 152.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2017, against the goal of 137.3 percent, according to The Associated Press. Moreover, Greece is not expected to begin generating surpluses to begin paring the debt until 2016, two years later than hoped.
Ms. Merkel’s visit — the first by a major European leader since the start of the debt crisis in 2009 — stands as the high point thus far of her recent efforts to show a renewed dedication to European solidarity after years of harsh words and increasingly strained relations within the bloc.
“It is in our common interest that we in Europe once again win back our credibility in the world and show that in the euro zone we can solve our problems together,” Ms. Merkel said at a joint news conference with Mr. Samaras.
Many Greeks did not believe that Germany meant what it said. “There’s no united Europe, there’s the Europe of Germany,” said Irene Sikiaridi-Krokou, 59, a retired airline hostess and supporter of the leftist Syriza party, which placed second in last June’s elections, as she stood outside Parliament with a Greek flag draped over her shoulders.
Indeed, even as the prime minister greeted Ms. Merkel as “a friend of our country,” in a crisis that has revealed the deep divisions and even hostility within Europe, Ms. Merkel’s visit sometimes seemed more akin to President Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China than a routine bilateral summit between allies.
Three years of grinding austerity in exchange for foreign funding to pay back banks and meet expenses has seen Greece’s gross domestic product shrink 25 percent. Unemployment is now at 50 percent for young people and 24 percent overall. A series of governments has dramatically cut spending without improving the functioning of the state, resulting in cuts to essential services like hospitals.
“In three years they have destroyed a nation,” said Maria Choussakou, 59, a former high school ancient Greek teacher who said she had been forced into early retirement. “We were middle class, now we’re impoverished,” she added.
At the news conference, Ms. Merkel, looking tense, acknowledged the pain Greece was facing after massive spending cuts. But she encouraged the country to continue on its path of structural reforms. “Much has been achieved, much has been demanded of the Greek people, she said. “I am deeply convinced that it’s going to be worthwhile,” she added.
Mr. Samaras said that Ms. Merkel’s visit had “broken our international isolation” and “turned a new page in the relations of Greece and Germany.”
The prime minister said the visit also helped diminish fears that Greece might exit the euro. “Everyone who has bet on Greece’s collapse and that Europe will be badly hurt will lose this bet,” Mr. Samaras said.
A mostly peaceful demonstration near Parliament of about 40,000 — modest by Greek standards — was marred by small outbursts of violence when hooded protesters broke away and started throwing stones at police officers, who responded with tear gas.
A police spokeswoman said 217 people had been detained for questioning, throughout the day with 24 arrested and charged with a range of offenses. Greek media said five demonstrators sustained minor injuries with a sixth suffering a heart attack.
Some banners in the demonstration in Athens on Tuesday read, “Don’t cry for us Mrs. Merkel” and “Merkel you are not welcome here.” A small group of protesters burned a flag bearing the symbol of the Nazi swastika while a handful protesters dressed in Nazi-style uniforms drew cheers of approval as they rode a small jeep past a police cordon.
Some 7,000 police officers, many brought to the capital from the provinces for the day, are on standby along with rooftop snipers.
In the news conference, Ms. Merkel acknowledged the “suffering” that the Greek people had endured as the government forced through deep spending cuts in the midst of a recession that has lasted for years. But she said the country was headed in the right direction. “I am convinced that the path, which is a difficult path, will lead to success,” Ms. Merkel said.
But many Greeks disagreed. “It’s just spin, it means nothing,” said Vassiliki Tsitsopoulos, a literature professor who attended Tuesday’s demonstration. “It’s never been worse, it’s just going to get worse, there’s no bottom, there’s just spin.”
“We’re just keeping up appearances,” Ms. Tsitsopoulos added. “Including the demonstrators. At this point we’re part of the scenery.”
Others believed the protests were necessary. “This is pure provocation, we have to answer back,” said the nurse, Christina Amanti, 37. “It’s like she’s visiting her protectorate. What’s she going to do, pat us on the back and tell us to keep getting poorer, that it’s good for us?”
While German policy makers have complaints about their struggling partners, the realization appears to have dawned on Ms. Merkel and officials in her chancellery that with Mario Monti in Italy, Mariano Rajoy in Spain and Mr. Samaras in Greece, Ms. Merkel has the most cooperative partners she is ever going to have to work with.
The implosion of Greece’s Socialist Party and the rise of parties on the extreme right and on the left there served to underline that point. “It’s the outcome of the June 17 elections, the perception that this is the best government you can get under the current circumstances,” said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, a senior analyst at the European Policy Center.
In recent months Ms. Merkel has come to recognize “the geostrategic importance, what would happen if the situation would deteriorate,” Mr. Emmanouilidis said, including a host of “potential domino effects” beyond just the financial realm but extending to European security, the common market and the entire project of European integration.
“Going there is the right thing to do, even if you have negative pictures from Athens,” Mr. Emmanouilidis. “You need to face it head on and not pretend it’s not as bad as it is.”
Ms. Merkel is also facing domestic political concerns. Her visit comes only days after her main rivals, the Social Democratic Party, announced that Peer Steinbrück, a former finance minister under Ms. Merkel from 2005 to 2009 who takes a more lenient line on Greece, would run against her in next year’s general election.
Even within Ms. Merkel’s own Christian Democratic party there are differences of opinion on how to handle Greece. While the chancellor has in recent months shifted her rhetoric from stressing the importance of austerity and come out more strongly in favor of keeping Greece in the euro zone, her current finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble has upheld a tougher line on Athens.
“We want to help Greece to build up an efficient bureaucracy and an efficient economy, but at some point, Greece needs to stand on its own two feet,” Mr. Schäuble told RBB public broadcaster on Monday. “It is pointless to help a bottomless pit.”
Analysts said that Ms. Merkel knew she was taking a risk to travel to Greece and brave protests and negative press. “She knew this was going to be a difficult trip and that she wouldn’t necessarily win over Greek hearts,” said Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But the belief in European integration, in European responsibility is fundamental in German politics, for the chancellor and for the opposition.”
“She is trying to send a signal that it is not about saving Greece to death but also ensuring that the Greek economy can get back on its feet,” Mr. Sandschneider added.
“No one has the master plan in their pocket for how to lead Europe out of this crisis.”
Rachel Donadios reported from Athens and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin. Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens and Melissa Eddy from Strasbourg, France.