Greeks Pelt German Diplomat in Austerity Protest

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Demonstrators surrounded a German diplomat in the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece on Thursday and hurled cups of coffee and bottles of water at him as police sought to keep the crowds at bay, the latest reflection of growing anger in Greece against what is widely seen as a crippling austerity plan being imposed largely by Germany.

The incident flared a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel's special envoy, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, a deputy labor minister, said studies showed that 1,000 local government officials in Germany could do the work of 3,000 Greek officials.

His remarks, which came as European leaders dallied yet again over how to finance the debt-racked country, infuriated Greeks in Thessaloniki who had already been on strike and had occupied the town hall to protest a $17 billion austerity bill that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government approved last week. Greece was required to pass the measures in order to receive $40 billion in aid that it needs to avoid bankruptcy.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Mr. Fuchtel said his comments were not directed at Greek officials. "I have met many industrious Greek civil servants," he said. "My point was about making the administration more effective, with fewer levels of decision making."

But in a country with unemployment fast nearing 30 percent, and where the austerity measures passed last week were equivalent to 9 percent of the country's economic output, Mr. Fuechtel's comments were widely seen as tone deaf.

Early reports that protesters had stormed the event in Thessaloniki were incorrect, Mr. Fuchtel said, adding that the only disruption came when coffee was thrown on the official, Wolfgang Hoelscher-Obermaier.

But Greeks were still riled by Mr. Fruchtel's remarks. He "cannot understand exactly how serious is the problem, the social deterioration in Greece," said Nikos Xydakis, a columnist for Kathimerini daily. "I don't know if he understands how the unemployment rates are translated in human lives," he said, adding that Mr. Fuechtel lacked "the flexibility and the diplomatic skills" to speak more gingerly.

The Greek-German tensions broke into the open a day after coordinated strikes in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. That, and the deep divisions between Greece's foreign lenders over how best to resolve Greece's seemingly intractable debt problems, have tapped into a growing sense across Southern Europe that the social order is unraveling far more quickly than European leaders are acting to preserve it.

Mr. Fuchtel's task was to provide assistance to Greek municipalities in setting up partnerships in Germany to help them become more efficient. He has been warmly received by officials but less so by a wary public. Earlier this year a poster showed him as a German paratrooper, a reference to the Nazi invasion during World War II.

European officials this week delayed a decision on releasing the $40 billion aid tranche, saying they needed more time to assess if Greece is adhering to structural reforms promised in exchange for two bailout packages totalling more than $300 billion.

Greece's European partners are likely to send billions in aid anyway by the end of November to avoid the threat of a default and the trouble that could stir up, both in bond markets and on the streets of Greece.

Meanwhile, Germany's economy continued to defy the recession that is gripping the euro zone, growing 0.2 percent in the third quarter even as the Greek economy continued to collapse. That, in turn, is drawing thousands of migrants. According to statistics released Thursday, half a million people moved to Germany in just the first six months of 2012, with an especially sharp rise in the numbers moving there from crisis-stricken countries in Southern Europe. An additional 6,900 people came from Greece, an increase of 78 percent over the first half of 2011, along with an additional 3,900 from Spain, a 53 percent increase, and 2,000 more from Portugal, also a 53 percent increase.

The absolute numbers are not that large, but the increase in migration to Germany's relatively robust economy will stoke fears of a brain drain within the euro zone. German companies have been trying to recruit everything from engineers to health-care workers for open positions as more and more people leave the country's rapidly aging workforce.

Liz Alderman reported from Paris and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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