Tsipras visit focuses on refugees as Europe closes its borders

Tsipras visit focuses on refugees as Europe closes its borders

It took just a week for the EU to express second thoughts over one of its most precious principles: the acquis communautaire, the body of EU legislation, rules and decisions that every member -and prospective member, like Turkey- has to follow in order to be accepted in the family. 

The Schengen agreement, which abolished internal border controls for the EU countries, seems to be the first blow against the EU’s structure as we knew it.  

During an emergency meeting in Brussels Nov. 20, interior and justice ministers from the 28 EU member states, decided to tighten checks at their borders, even for European citizens and asked the European Commission to propose a review of the Schengen Agreement until the end of the year. Under the shadow of further attacks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Netherlands has already put forward the idea of a “mini” Schengen zone with passport checks at the borders of several western European states. Many believe that Schengen is on its last breath. 

Europe is closing into itself in a rapid process of self-defense. European politicians publicly deny any link between migrants and jihadist terrorism, but privately many see migrants as “potential terrorists.” In many parts of Europe, special legislation is being prepared for limiting the number of migrants each country allows in. The picture last summer of a Europe welcoming desperate refugees fleeing the wrath of ISIL and al-Assad is now being replaced by a frightened and suspicious Europe for whom the Paris bombings were the last straw.

Since last summer, Europe started having second thoughts over its border policies. We actually witnessed the change in countries like Austria, Hungary and even Germany, when the refugee flows mainly via the Aegean islands started to increase dramatically. Deep disagreements among the Europeans showed the first cracks in EU unity and some threw the idea of stricter internal border controls as well as tighter external border security on the table. After the mayhem in Paris, that idea not only seems possible but maybe imperative.

The Greek PM Alexis Tsipras paid an official visit to Turkey last week. It was after the Paris massacre and the Antalya G-20 Summit. He started his visit attending a friendly football match between the national teams of Greece and Turkey in Istanbul together with his Turkish counterpart, where they witnessed an ugly display of verbal nationalism by some Turkish fans specifically during the playing of the Greek national anthem. Tsipras’ visit the following day to the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul included a long meeting with Patriarch Bartholomeos. Talking to the press, Tspras said that his philosophy is to address problems as soon as they arise and not to push them under the carpet, because “then, it becomes too late.” He went to Ankara the same day and met with PM elect Ahmet Davutoğlu. In their joint press conference, one could clearly feel Tsipras’s haste in finding a solution for the festering migrant problem. And this, I think, was the main reason for his visit. 

Tsipras tried to emphasize that the migrant problem may be an opportunity for both countries to act together and find their joint solutions. He even said, “We cannot expect our problems to be solved by Germans, Luxembourgian, Italians; we have to solve them together.”

I had the chance to talk to people who accompanied him to Turkey. They told me that Greece is terrified by the idea of European countries closing their internal borders and leaving Greece isolated, trapped with a huge number of refugees on its land that it is unable to cater to. It is for this reason that Tsipras sought the help of Turkey. 

But Turkey is right now in the middle of a tough negotiation process with the EU for an overall agreement over the control of the migrant flow.  In order to agree to keep the flow on its land and not allow it to spill over into Europe, Ankara has a series of political as well as economic demands that Europe may find hard to stomach. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert underlined the other day that Greece and Turkey need to cooperate in order to control the activities of refugee traffickers. 

Time has accelerated after Paris. Ankara is in a stronger position to negotiate with the EU. I hope Tsipras’s visit managed to create enough rapport to allow both countries to address the problems in their immediate region in a cooperative manner, irrespectively of the bigger negotiating game that is taking place between Ankara and Brussels. This is what Greece needs at the moment.