EU dragging its feet about refugee problem

EU dragging its feet about refugee problem

“Words, words, words!” said my colleague on the other end of the line. “Nothing concrete came out. It is no longer possible for Europeans to agree among themselves like in the old times. Everybody is putting their little national flag on the map and does not care about anything else.”

My Greek journalist colleague who lives and works in Germany was totally disillusioned with the outcome of last week’s EU summit where, supposedly, the issue of refugees was discussed with high priority. And in which Turkey was to participate for the first time as the biggest recipient of migration flows and an important partner of any strategy to contain the problem. 

In the end, neither happened as anticipated. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu participated only in a pre-summit meeting with a certain number of leaders. The EU leaders asked the EU Council to decide upon the proposal to create a new European Border Coast Guard to replace Frontex. But, in spite of the obvious urgency of problem, they put off the aim of finalizing the details of the new project until next July. 

2015 was an exceptional year for Europe. The deterioration of the Syria crisis brought the Europeans face to face with the huge collateral impact of a geostrategic policy gone badly wrong; a policy which was neither instigated nor opposed by them when it was introduced some years ago in Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa. They also had to come to grips with the biggest terrorist attack to date by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the center of Europe. And the shock from the Paris bombings last month was even greater when it became apparent that the terrorists were actually European citizens born in France and Belgium.

This constellation of adversities tested the very structure of the European Union. The ethnocentric reflexes projected by states mainly belonging to the former Communist camp, like Hungary, Slovakia, FYROM and the like, showed that the aim for a closer EU with perhaps a more centralized governance system and a single foreign policy was now being seriously challenged. 

The decision last week to set up a new European Border Coast Guard to replace Frontex includes the provision to use special EU guards who could send refused migrants back from where they came from. If any EU member state is judged to be not doing enough to protect the EU’s borders, these guards are supposed spring into action without the need to ask for the permission of the national state on whose territory they are operating. These new arrangements touch upon sensitive issues of sovereignty and put countries like Greece and Italy in a difficult position. 

Greece is already receiving a greater number of refugees than any other country in Europe as it is the first European gate for anybody fleeing the war zones of the Middle East while Turkey, on the other end, is the last country that can stop a fleeing migrant before they attempt to cross into Europe. Greece, a country already in straps due to a third bailout program and in its seventh year of economic crisis, is being asked by Brussels to “do more about the refugee crisis.”

During last week’s EU summit, Angela Merkel wanted to know from the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras how long will it be before the “relocation camps” for refugees are ready, with the Greek leader pointing out that only half of the aid promised to Greece regarding refugees has been delivered. He also asked for a permanent mechanism to be set up in Turkey in order to control the flow by sending legal asylum seekers directly to the countries of their choice. 

Regarding the new European force to control the European borders, Tsipras expressed his reservations: “I told them,” he said, “that if you think you can do more than what our Coast Guard does, you are fooling yourselves. You will not manage it, because you have neither the experience of the Greek seamen nor are you sea people as we are. But come, we are open.” 

Nearly 1 million refugees and other migrants have entered the EU this year alone, according to the International Organization of Migrants, while the Greek Coast Guard claims it has saved 57,000 migrants from drowning in the Aegean Sea.

“The problem is that nobody cares about Greece any longer,” says my colleague from Germany. They all place their hopes on Turkey being able to control trafficking and curb migrant flows on its territory. 

Having lost its hopes with the Europeans, the Greek government is now planning further contacts with Turkish leaders aimed at reaching a modus operandi as neighbors facing a problem “in their own backyard.”