Syrian refugees arriving in Greece by CAFOD Photo Library @flickr
Greece was on the defensive again this week as it faced a new threat to its EU member status, this time because of its mismanagement of the Syrian refugee crisis. The European Commission has given the country an ultimatum: rein in migration, respect your obligations under the Schengen rules, or be expelled from the passport-free area. Valdis Dombrovskis, a commission vice-president complained that "Greece seriously neglected its obligations" and graciously extended a three month period to Athens to get its house in order.
While Greece has found itself at the epicentre of the refugee crisis through geographical misfortune rather than through its own failures, the real reason EU member states can so readily countenance the idea of cutting Greece adrift is its ailing economy. For some time now, Greece has been the sick man of Europe and now the EU is raising the temperature, trying to persuade Athens to pay back its medical bills. As such, threatening to expel Greece from Schengen is nothing more than a new strategy being used by the EU to force Athens to go through with the painful bailout agreement signed in July 2015.
This is not the first time that the "swarm" of refugees arriving from the Middle East has been used as a bargaining chip in the dialogue over Greek debt. In March last year, Panos Kammenos, Greek defence minister and head of junior coalition member the Independent Greeks, launched a warning shot across the bows when he cautioned that if the EU allowed Greece to flounder, "we will flood it with migrants". This human tide, he reminded member states with a spectacular lack of subtlety, would probably include "some jihadists of the Islamic State too." In the not so gracious words of Panos Kammenos, blow us out, and we'll enable them to blow you up in return.
Such reckless comments surely did not endear Greece to the creditors, but that does not mean that the EU should stoop to the level of strong-arming Athens tit-for-tat. Instead of this adversarial approach, isn't it time both sides approached things from a more adult perspective?
Firstly, Greek immigration minister Yiannis Mouzalas' recent criticisms that Turkey was failing to effectively stem the flow of migrants might sound like sour grapes but in reality they do hold water. Turkey is set to receive significant financial aid - €3bn - to help it deal with its refugees, on the condition that it cuts the illegal flow of migrants to Europe. Ankara is well aware of the power it holds as one of the main routes of entry and has not been shy about stepping-up or stepping-down its counter-efforts as a way of extracting further concessions from the EU. If the EU is paying Turkey to keep the refugees on its side of the border, and Ankara defies Brussels, then is Greece truly to blame?
Secondly, the upcoming scuppering of the Dublin Regulation, responsible for the "first point of entry" principle that governs which country should handle asylum claims, paves the way for a more equitable way of managing the burgeoning humanitarian crisis. A revamped system should incorporate the "quasi-automatic" system of allocating the refugees washed ashore Greece's islands to different EU countries as well as providing financial relief for Athens' cash strapped budget. Holding Greece responsible under rules that are currently under revision is cynical to say the least.
Thirdly and most importantly, the Troika should use its positive influence to push the Greek government to implement reforms that will benefit both the country and its creditors. While the draconic austerity programs imposed by Greece's creditors have single-handedly caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Greece, giving in to the populist mirage offered by some of Syriza's policies will not do much to end the suffering. The middle way may not get hearts pumping, but it's the most sensible course of action.
So for a start, Tsipras should seek to remove the influence of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) led by the divisive Panos Kammenos. After Syriza purged its radical wing led by former Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, Tsipras shifted track and signalled his desire to embrace the propositions put forward by the creditors to reform the country - a move that put the Prime Minister at loggerheads with ANEL. With the election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis to lead New Democracy, Syriza stands a much better chance of keeping the country on an even keel if it reaches out to the opposition.
From this vantage point, Tsipras and his cabinet should start implementing much needed reforms and inch Greece's economy back into the green. While it may not sit well with Syriza's ideology, one of the most important tools in its armoury is without a doubt privatisation. While creditors expressed their satisfaction at news that the Piraeus port will be bought by China's COSCO, the deal is not cleared yet, mostly because of opposition from Shipping Minister Theodoros Dritsas. The latter claims the sale is an absolute mistake and has threatened to derail the deal - an outcome that should be strongly opposed by Tsipras. Why? Because if Greece has failed to properly manage its state-owned assets, privatizing them is not just a logical solution but the only one that would create jobs and boost state coffers.
Compromise is required by both sides. In his comments about 'flooding' Europe, Kammenos made no effort to disguise the fact that this 'policy' was informed by vengeance only, saying "if they strike us, we will strike them." And while some Greeks may feel they have the moral high ground, the EU states must be careful to ensure the same contagion isn't infecting their thinking too.