The most recent European Council meeting was all about Brexit and saw the EU and the UK come to an agreement at the 11thhour on 17 October. Later it was all about the European Union’s enlargement and the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
After France, the Netherlands, and Denmark took a tough line of the accession talks, the focus of the discussions turned to migration. Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who discussed the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans issue during the leaders’ dinner, also insisted on more solidarity towards when it came to the management of the refugee crisis.
Throughout the summer, migratory flows from Turkey to the Greek islands have been on the rise. Greece has insisted that Turkey has deliberately failed to implement the joint EU-Turkey Statement when it comes to controlling the flows of migrants from its coast, which means that both Greek and European authorities have to cope with the increased social and financial burden.
What is necessary, according to Greek officials, is more intense pressure to be put on the Turkish government that would force them to fully honor their commitments. Greece, on the other side, also has to do much more when it comes to better managing the flows, both in terms of safeguarding its borders but also of speeding up the processing of asylum applications.
The process can last from several months to years if there is a row of appeals on the side of the asylum seeker. With a bill, which was introduced to Parliament late on 16 October, the government aims to increase the time needed to review asylum applications while also setting clearer criteria about who can be considered as “vulnerable”. This would then allow them to be transferred from the islands to the Greek mainland.
Europe needs time
Mitsotakis is fully aware of the fact that Europe is extremely slow when it comes to decisive decision-making. The well-known common asylum system has been on the negotiating table for years. European officials had thought tat it would be in place by 2019, but now no one is in position to say whether or when it will be put into force.
Given this ambiguity about common asylum rules, Mitsotakis is therefore making it clear to his counterparts that assistance is needed on two levels. On the one hand, there needs to be pressure put on Turkey, but also further financial assistance is necessary so that Ankara can manage the big number of refugees and migrants it is hosting.
There also needs to be more solidarity from Brussels with Greece in practical terms. For example, Mitsotakis is saying that it is unacceptable that between 3,500 and 4,000 unaccompanied minors cannot be settled because too many of the EU’s members are refusing to take in little children. Greece has already pledged to improve its performance when it comes to fulfilling the EU-Turkey Statement and increase returns to Turkey once it has sped up the asylum-examination process. As a result, Mitsotakis is asking Europeans to act before it is too late.
On the sidelines the Summit, he also met with counterparts from Southern Europe, including Italy’s Giuseppe Conte and Spain’s Pedro Sanchez. Greece, Italy and Spain are front-line states, even though they have to cope with different amounts of migratory flows. Mitsotakis’ however was seeking a common front with countries of the Mediterranean, while also having an open line with Germany and France.
Greece is not willing to wait forever however. That’s why Mitsotakis put a further parameter on the table. “Europe must be prepared for the eventuality of a new migratory and refugee wave coming through Greece” he told the French AFP in an interview on Wednesday. What Mitsotakis has been telling Europeans is that if they don’t act now, it is possible that thousands of people will be systematically passing through the gates and entering into Europe.
He has rightfully predicted that tough times will be ahead for the EU if this were to happen and would force Brussels to rethink its strategy while under adverse conditions. Mitsotakis is putting pressure on other European Union members to press Turkey and further support Greece or face the probability that the bloc would be fully unprepared for the possibility of tens of thousands of people emigrating from the Turkish-Syrian borders. Should the situation take a turn for the worst, Greece would have the right to request assistance from Brussels and the EU would be compelled to act. According to article 78 of the Treaty on European Union, it is clearly stated that “in the event that one or more of the Member States is being confronted by an emergency situation that is characterised by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting with the European Parliament”.
For Greek government officials, it is clear that such an escalation is not desirable. Mitsotakis thought, however, that he needed to find a way to challenge the unwillingness of European leaders to act upon the matter. There have also been warnings from European officials over the past weeks, most notably from Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who recently visited Turkey and warned of “a refugee wave that would be even bigger than 2015”.