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Visiting German Finance Minister Faces Greek Protests

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble (R) meets Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in Athens, July 18, 2013.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble (R) meets Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in Athens, July 18, 2013.
Selah Hennessy
Thousands of police officers lined the streets of Athens on Thursday as the German finance minister visited the Greek capital. His arrival comes as a controversial bill was passed in the Greek parliament to eliminate thousands of public sector jobs.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said Thursday he holds a "deep respect" for how Greece has tackled its reform efforts.

This was the German finance minister's first trip to Athens since Greece was granted its initial international bailout three years ago.

But Greek citizens did not welcome him with open arms.

Four-thousand police were on hand to keep order. Authorities shut the city center and banned protests during his visit in a sign of just how unpopular Germany's push for austerity has been.

Outside parliament on Thursday, Greeks voiced their discontent. One of them, a Greek engineer, said Schaeuble should go. "We do not need conquerors here," he said. "We've gone through so much with the German occupation."

Earlier on Thursday the Greek parliament narrowly passed a bill to cut public sector jobs despite thousands of people protesting outside parliament during the vote.

The cuts will pave the way for Greece to receive the next tranche of its bailout aid.

Greece is dependent on its international lenders, the so-called "troika," which is made up of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Together they are propping Greece up with over $300 billion in aid.

Germany is Greece's biggest creditor. On Thursday Schaeuble said Germany will not be granting Greeks a haircut, or write-down, on their debt.

But Iain Begg, a Europe expert at the London School of Economics, said the burden of Greek debt, which is continuing to rise, will have to be cut.

"That ultimately means the Germans accepting that they will lose some of the money they have invested in Greece. It is unlikely to happen before the German elections because it would play so badly in Germany itself," he said. "But after another couple of months I would expect to see some movement toward easing the pain of the debt in Greece."

Begg said despite Greek woes, there is some good news on the horizon. In the first place, he said, the Greek tourism industry is doing well and giving some boost to the country's economy.

And across Europe, he said, countries that looked very bad a year or two ago are showing some signs of recovery. He said Spain is one example.
 
"Employment is just turning the corner, the public finances coming back into order, the banks being recapitalized in a fairly successful manner," Begg said. "All that creates the foundations for them to move forward. So I would expect to see in the second half of this year and into this year slow growth moving into the European economy, which has been absent for the last two years."

Over 4,000 state employees will lose their jobs in the bill passed early Thursday, including teachers and local government workers.​

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