The government of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has declared a change of course regarding the management of the refugee crisis that has been characterized by the opening of fenced-off detention centres on the frontline Aegean islands, controlled facilities on the mainland, faster asylum examination processes, and readiness to deport more of the detainees to Turkey and other countries of origin.
The new Greek government is trying to find a way to alleviate the burden from the islands that are closest to Turkey by sending a stern message to Ankara that asylum seekers, who are most likely not to be granted international protection, should not consider trying to illegally cross into Greece. In other words, and in contrast with the previous government of the radical leftist SYRIZA party, the Greek authorities are trying to establish a series of logical disincentives for potential migrants whose asylum applications are likely to be unsuccessful and would have to be returned.
Mitsotakis’ administration hopes that the new strategy will bear fruit within the coming months. The fenced-off detention centres should be fully functioning by the end of next spring, while the new asylum processes will apply coming into effect on January 1, 2019. Mitsotakis has also welcomed the delivery of 10 new vessels for the Greek Coastguard by the Greek Shipowners’ Association.
Most importantly, should Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refuse to adhere to his commitments to halt the migrant flow, the new measures put forth by the current Greek government will be insufficient to deal with the current crisis, a sentiment that is shared by both Mitsotakis’ closest confidants and members of the administration.
Turkey’s unwillingness to cooperate
As noted by Greek officials in recent months, Ankara has refused to fully and properly implement the joint EU-Turkey Statement, and has thus allowed hundreds of asylum seekers to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean islands on a daily basis.
Turkey’s actions have been made known to Brussels by the Greek government, however, with the transition from the Jean-Claude Juncker Commission to Ursula von der Leyen’s administration now in full swing, little has been done to bring Turkey into full compliance with the agreement.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the ex-Commissioner for Migration and Homeland Security, who enjoys a good relationship with Erdogan, has been unable to convince Turkish authorities to fully honour their obligations under the 2016 agreement that was designed to stop the flow of irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. Ankara’s breach of the agreement has been particularly hard on Greece, which shares both a land and maritime border with Turkey. This has been further exacerbated by the refusal of fellow EU members Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland to accept asylum seekers. This has left Greece and its far larger Mediterranean neighbour Italy to shoulder most of the social and financial burden.
Confrontation in London
Mitsotakis has, in recent weeks, sent clear signals to both the establishment in Brussels and the rest of Europe that Greece is no longer willing or able to accept the status quo regarding the migrant situation. Those who are close to Mitsotakis have bitterly noted, however, that there appears to be little will or appetite within the Brussels bubble to listen to Greece’s concerns and the ability of Europe to muster enough solidarity to act decisively.
The Greek prime minister has gone so far as to compare Brussels’ stance on the management of the refugee crisis as resembling ostriches who bury their heads in the sand in times of difficulty.
Mitsotakis is now set to travel to London for a NATO summit on December 3-4 that is likely to be particularly contentious due to growing discord in the Alliance over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron’s that NATO is “bran dead” and that Russia is “no longer an enemy”. Tensions with Turkey are also at an all-time high after the Turks began putting into operation Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries despite the objections of nearly all of the Alliance’s members, particularly the United States.
According to sources close to Mitsotakis, a meeting with Erdogan, though not yet finalised, may be possible. Should it take place, it will be the second in less than three months, given that the two also met in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also expected to meet with Mitsotakis while in London. Both leaders have been in regular contact, and Merkel has been kept up-to-date of the efforts by Greek authorities to enhance their capabilities to manage the migrant crisis and Athens’ attempts to get the Turks to fully comply with the EU-Turkey Agreement.
Turkey’s position and lack of cooperation on the migrant issue has become deeply problematic for many of Europe’s key stakeholders. Because of this, Germany is pushing for a new plan that would replace the now obsolete Dublin Regulation that determines which EU Member State is responsible for processing asylum seekers.
The German government is pushing for a new mechanism that would include an automatic relocation of asylum seekers after they have submitted an application on the EU’s external borders. This new mechanism would, if adopted, become permanent by the time Germany takes over Europe’s rotating presidency after the end of June 2020.
The Greek government is now in the process of waiting for the new von der Leyen Commission to table a proposal on a common asylum mechanism. Von Der Leyen, herself, has said that the EU’s plan will be officially presented by February. The new Commission’s Vice President Margaritis Schinas and the incoming Commissioner for Migration, Ylva Johansson, are responsible for the proposal, with both expected in Athens in early December to discuss the management and current state of the crisis.