There are two problems with the way Greece is attempting — and largely failing — to manage its huge influx of migrants. The principal challenge is the sheer scale of migration faced. This is a problem for all of Europe, and indeed beyond, and one that needs a truly international effort to solve. The second problem is largely home made by Athens.
Last week the European Commission ruled in a draft report that Greece had neglected its obligation to secure the external frontier of Europe's passport-free Schengen zone. The report was presented to Athens and the rest of the world by the Greek EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos. This irony of sorts illustrates the permanent 'Greek problem' within the EU. While it is not unusual for EU member countries to try and obstruct Brussels on various matters, one can argue the Greek artistry for holding up sensible European solutions in the name of sovereignty and national interest has been unparalleled since it became a member in 1981.
The Euro Crisis of the summer of 2015 was the most visible, but a far from isolated, example of the Greek tendency to claim a sort of EU birthright as 'the cradle of democracy', while refusing to play ball if Athens sees any threat to its perceived interests. For the last 10 years, for example, Greece has also blocked any proposed resolution to the Cyprus problem and then there is the dispute, dating back to the mid 1990s, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on the very name of its northern neighbor.
While EU membership has prevented Greece from sliding back into a political abyss such as the fascist Regime of the Colonels, in power from 1967-74, its democratic governments, including the current coalition, have consistently put their own interests first. Populism has dominated policy, as explained in this New York Times opinion piece by Nikos Konstandara,
Tired of all this, the EU has now called on Greece to at least fulfill its basic obligations under Schengen, or risk suspension from the passport-free zone. This would presumably affect the tourist trade that is so important to the stumbling Greek economy and has been roundly rejected by Athens with the Greek government blaming just about everybody else for the migrant problem.
Of course everyone is aware that improved border policing and registration of migrants in Greece would only be a small part of the solution to the migration issue which is, in effect, not just one but a set of immensely complex problems.
The European winter has slowed the flow somewhat but it is still very difficult to see how the uncontrolled mass exodus of political refugees from Syria and Iraq, joined by a wave of economic migrants from Afghanistan and Africa, can be stopped, let alone reversed.
Sweden, often viewed as a paragon of an open and humanitarian country, has just announced it will transport about half of the 150, 000 refugees it received last year back to where they came from. 'Back to where?' one is tempted to ask, given African countries routinely refuse to issue papers to refugees in Europe, let alone allowing them to return. Sweden will no doubt find that massive financial assistance, with generous sums allocated to grease the acceptation machinery, will be required if such desperate measures to resettle denied migrants and thus prevent xenophobic backlash at home are to succeed.
There is no shortage of proposals for an overall, albeit temporary, solution for Syrian migrants, the vast majority of which can clearly not be sent back to exactly where they come from. The creation of a secure zone within Syria, policed by the US, NATO and the EU, is looking increasingly like the least worst solution. This would especially be the case if it could be joined both militarily, with a resolute push to eradicate ISIS, and politically, by forcing the Syrian parties into a solution such as that hoped for by the UN sponsored talks in Geneva.
An intriguing variation on this proposal was recently floated by a Swiss Middle Eastern expert who suggested that Israel should seriously consider allowing the UN to draw up plans for such a secure zone on the Golan Heights. There are three reasons why this makes sense. Firstly, the Golan Heights were Syrian territory, until seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day-War. Secondly, it is away from the Turkish border and, thirdly, it would instantly transform the Jewish state from an increasingly isolated outsider into a core player and peacemaker, giving it dividends to cash in for years to come. Of course, it is also highly unlikely to be entertained by either the present Israeli government or the various Arab regimes who won't quickly give up their one remaining bond; their historically impotent hostility to Tel Aviv.
However, another proposal, for a secure zone in the vicinity of the Turkish border does not look likely either. At least not in Erdogan's Turkey, fixated as it is on the 'Kurdish threat' to the point where the regime attacks its own citizens, as is happening in Cizre. It has also threatened to jail leading Turkish journalists for life after they revealed secret but clearly official arms shipments to Islamic, doubtlessly Sunni, extremists.
Another interim measure was recently put forward by The Financial Times foreign affairs editor Gideon Rachman. His proposal would see the two EU crisis protagonists Greece and Germany transform their mutual recrimination issues into joint assets.
Sadly, what is more likely to happen is a continuation of stop-gap measures — for which a perfectly coined German expression exists, the highly suggestive 'Durchwursteln' (literally 'sausaging through') — always in view of salvaging fundamental European achievements while hoping for better times to come. Such measures will likely include EU assistance for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia which, while aspiring to EU membership, is not part of the Schengen zone, in return for it closing its border with Greece, a member of EU and Schengen. Such paradoxical measures would demonstrate the collective EU frustration with Greece and its non-compliance with the rules of the complex structure that is the European Union. Complex it is, but it is also vital if Europe is to not become an increasingly irrelevant addition to the Eurasian landmass, one profoundly marked by this era of 'Asia Awakening'.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies