When Philipp Rösler, Germany’s economy minister and vice-chancellor, landed in Athens on Thursday with 60 German businessmen in tow, his Greek hosts might have been forgiven for confusion about his mission.
A month ago, he hit the headlines by insisting very publicly that talking about an “orderly insolvency” for Greece must not be taboo. His comments alarmed the markets, causing a renewed run on the euro and a further drop in the price of Greek bonds.
This week, he produced a two-page working paper that sketches out how the orderly restructuring of a eurozone country’s debt might work.
But yesterday Mr Rösler was adamant that his mission was to rescue Greece, not to bury the debt-strapped economy.
“In the spirit of solidarity, it’s the task of all Europeans to help Greece get back on its feet economically and we want to take German firms to Greece,” Mr Rösler told German TV on his departure, calling for “clear structural reforms” from Athens in return.
The problem is that the economy minister is trying to do two things at once: to demonstrate that Germany can help Greece through investment, while also seeking to revive the profile of his own political party, the Free Democratic party, from a slump in its domestic fortunes, by sounding tough on debtors.
His problem is to prove his relevance. But the 38-year-old’s attempt to get Germany’s voters to take notice appeared marred by bad timing.
No sooner had Mr Rösler left than Berlin was teeming with the heavy-hitters of the euro crisis. The head of the International Monetary Fund, and French finance minister François Baroin flitted around town, the European Central Bank’s governors were there for an extra-mural monthly meeting– and no one seemed to miss the vice-chancellor.
The minister’s unfortunate sense of timing first hit the headlines a month ago, when he talked first about an “orderly insolvency” for Greece. The remark panicked markets and led to a very public rebuke from Ms Merkel.
Things got worse. Opponents used the line – wrongly, Mr Rösler’s allies claim – to denounce him as a eurosceptic populist trying to resuscitate a dying party. An anti-European platform saw the Free Democrats trounced in Berlin’s state election on 18 September.
So Mr Rösler now presents himself as a concerned but constructive pro-European. He insists that “orderly insolvency” would allow insolvent states to restructure debt and regain competitiveness; “the European idea and the euro” are declared central tenets of the party.
The idea to visit Athens with German businessmen was born at a conference about investing in Greece hosted by the economy ministry in June. Executives from small and medium-sized companies in sectors such as renewable energy, machine tools and tourism joined the minister on “a trip to make contacts”, as one officials said.
Mr Rösler does not want to raise exaggerated hopes. “We are not expecting the trip to result in billions worth of investment deals,” he said. But he does want to send a more positive message to Greece, as well as to German voters.
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