Tsipras visit may lead to ‘refugee diplomacy’

Tsipras visit may lead to ‘refugee diplomacy’

For the last five years, Greece has been synonymous with a major economic crisis, the first in the eurozone. And the impact of this in its political system, which brought a series of short-lived governments to power, some elected by a series of early elections, some appointed due to political impasse.

The present leftist-led government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was actually voted into office twice this year, first through an early election back in January - which forced the center-right Antonis Samaras out of office - and secured a victory for the first time of the party of the Radical Left (Syriza), which eventually formed a government with the small conservative Anel (Independent Greeks) party. 

The coming to power of a party with an anti-austerity leftist approach did not go down well with Brussels. Months of adventurous negotiations with the leaders of the eurozone ended up in a defeat for the Greeks because of Europe’s’ unflinching stance and the inexperience of the new Greek government. 

An eventual agreement for a new stability program backed by an unprecedented austerity package caused a deep split in the government. In the eventual vote for the new bail-out agreement in August, a revolt by some 40 Syriza deputies - some of them government ministers - allowed the agreement to pass thanks to the votes of the opposition parties. 

Tsipras’ government, after losing the majority in parliament, resigned on Aug. 20, accepted the defeat in Brussels to get his proposals accepted and asked the Greeks to vote for him again in snap elections. 

The new Syriza-led government was voted in on Sept. 20 in an unexpected victory, with only six seats less for an absolute majority but with a record low participation since the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974. 

The new Tsipras government has been deeply embroiled in an agonizing race to pass the required legislation through parliament in order to secure the promised 86 billion euros in tranches from the bailout agreement, while implementing a series of unpopular measures by increasing taxation, decreasing salaries and pensions and hunting for foreign investments. 

These may prove very tough times for the Greek government, which could eventually tarnish the personal appeal of the Greek prime minister. 

Yet, as if these domestic problems were not enough, Greece has been also hit this year by a huge problem: The refugee crisis. Greece is the first European Union member country tens of thousands of desperate people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan want to reach, risking drowning in the cold waters of the eastern Aegean trying to reach Greece in rubber dinghies. 

Greece is now a country in debt with over 25 percent persistent unemployment, very little help from its European partners and having to deal with a human crisis which is not of its own making. In a Europe politically and existentially split and fragmented over its policies towards refugees coming from the east, Greece is the first host to visitors that she cannot refuse. 

“Greece cannot pay for the cost of choices of others in the region,” said Greek Foreign Minister of Affairs Nikos Kotzias last Friday in Luxemburg during the ministerial meeting of ASEM. “In spite of the continuing economic and social pressures suffered by Greece, public opinion was favorable and supportive towards the refugees in a way that complied with our culture and values,” said Kotzias, obviously referring to the significant support shown by locals and volunteer organizations on the Aegean islands closest to the Turkish coast, which received some 200,000 refugees this year. 

Tsipras is coming to Turkey on Nov. 17. Most probably he will be the first official foreign leader to pay a visit to the new Davutoğlu government. It will be his first visit to Turkey as the prime minister of Greece and the refugee crisis will be on top of his agenda. There is a real need for bilateral cooperation over and above any political differences. Some analysts are comparing the current human crisis to that of the twin earthquakes in Turkey and Greece back in 1999. Then, against all odds, it had resulted in the so-called “earthquake diplomacy” and initiated the longest peaceful period in Turkish-Greek relations. Could this be an opportunity to prolong it by finding new creative solutions to yet another human catastrophe happening in our region, albeit due to the policies of others?