EU depends on Greece for stability

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened several weeks ago that he would “open the gates” for migrants to cross into Europe if the international community did not accept his pledge to create what he termed as “safe-zones” in Kurdish areas on the Turkish and Syrian borders.

This was a disturbing message for Greece. The idea of a new wave of migrants coming from Turkey already has Athens worried as it had been struggling for more than four years to deal with the countless number of asylum applications in the country and the bureaucratic obstacles that make this process even more troublesome. 

 Turkish threats, and the inability of the Greek authorities to operate at a quicker pace, are, however, not anything new. What is new in the management of the refugee crisis is that Turkey is under extreme pressure from its own migrant crisis as Idlib – the last anti-government stronghold still holding out against the combined forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran – is about to fall.

Once Idlib is finally captured by the Assad regime, a new stream of asylum seekers will seek refuge in Turkey.

This will put additional pressure on Greece, particularly after most other EU members refused to take in asylum seekers.

Though it may not be widely discussed, this latest development might jeopardise the very existence of the joint EU-Turkey Statement, since both parties are not implementing it to the full extent. Many EU members are looking the other way and the EU institutions are trying to cope with the added pressure at time of transition in Brussels.

This is why two top European Interior Ministers – Germany’s Horst Seehofer and France’s Christophe Castaner – alongside the outgoing Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos, took the initiative to travel to Ankara and Athens to meet with local authorities and urge a better implementation of the Statement, which was aimed at sealing the Turkish border to deny smugglers the right to operate near Greece and Turkey’s territorial boundaries.

The agreement is widely considered to be the key element in helping to push down the number of migrants crossing into the EU and with helping both European and Greek authorities better manage the situation in the field.

Seehofer and Avramopoulos held talks with Turkish officials and their Greek counterparts, but were not joined by Castaner, who had to cancel following a deadly attack against police officers in Paris. Greek Alternate Minister for Citizens Protection and responsible for handling of the refugee crisis, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, also travelled to Ankara to meet with the Turkey’s Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu.

Koumoutsakos and Soylou agreed on a direct line of communication between the two sides, one that will function in parallel with the structured service and operational dialogue. 

The German patrol ships BP-62 ‘Uckermark’ and BP-64 ‘Boerde’ in the port of Vathy on the Eastern Aegean Greek island of Samos. Ships of the German Federal Police have providing support to the Greek coast guard to help monitor the border and rescue refugees in the Aegean Sea. EPA//CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS

Power game 

The relationship between the EU and Erdogan is important to examine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the first leaders in the EU to determine that, no matter what the EU countries did and agreed upon, nothing would work without making Turkey a part of the solution.

Merkel was, and still is, one of the strongest champions of the EU-Turkey Statement. Turkey was the only party able to root out smugglers’ networks and contain the flow of asylum seekers coming in from its coast. In years past, Turkey had, in fact, played its part in providing housing facilities for migrants. 

 Since 2016, however, things have changed. Turkey is steadily moving away from its path towards European Union integration and is instead actively changing its strategic approach so that deliberately undermines Europe’s best interests. The EU is, for its part, not offering Turkey anything substantially new to push the integration process further, let alone the prospect of full membership in the bloc.

This is where Greece’s new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis comes into the picture. The Greek government is in the middle of a broader power-game and has to cope with increased flows and deeply-rooted flaws in the country’s operational system. Mitsotakis was one of the first to openly say that, while being deeply sceptical about the feasibility of establishing safe-zones in Kurdish districts on the Turkish-Syrian border where the local population would be openly hostile to the presence of armed Turkish peacekeepers.

He is, however, in favour of more funding towards Turkey so that it could host more asylum seekers. At a time when the European leadership is in flux due to the ongoing Commissioners Hearings at the European, Mitsotakis is trying to do Greece’s part to help assure that the EU-Turkey Statement is fixed, if not entirely, at least enough to make it functional again. 

 

Doing more

 The Mitsotakis government wants to set clear timelines for the country’s primary and secondary administrative asylum committees and streamline the appeals process.

According to government officials and lawmakers familiar with the new draft proposal, the goal is to have asylum applications processed within 100 days. Furthermore, more asylum seekers are being transferred from hotspots on the islands to facilities on the mainland. These facilities include existing refugee centres, unused hotels, while also new facilities, in unused military camps are also in sight.

At this point, more than 4,000 people have transferred to the mainland. Furthermore, some of the sites would be designated as “closed” facilities, or detention centres, where illegal migrants whose asylum applications have been turned down will be transferred before they are repatriated to their country of origin or to Turkey. The Greek government’s goal is to make the asylum appeals process faster so that more returns are feasible in the near future.  Government officials are setting a goal of 10,000 returns by 2020, but more than 70,000 asylum applications are still pending, according to Koumoutsakos. 

 The new Greek strategy has a clear goal – send a message to the people waiting on the coasts of Turkey that there is no point in taking trip if they know they are not entitled to asylum protection.