Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Greek farmers rise up from the land

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

Farmers are worried that their profession will shrink as a result of overtaxation.

Yiorgos Saraptsis prunes his hectare of kiwi vines diligently, making sure that each plant has just a few long tributaries to channel its strength into when spring comes. He explains how most of the buds will have to be plucked out before they fruit, so that the remaining kiwis reach market size.

It is labour-intensive work, but since Saraptsis owns less than a hectare in the shadow of Mount Olympus in northern Greece, he is happy to do it himself, bringing in his unemployed son at harvest time. Even so, he says, new taxes and social security contributions the government plans to enforce will make even this low-overhead concern non-viable.

“Those who have up to two hectares are finished,” he says. “You have to be a big landholder to survive. I made $11,000 from my hectare last year. My income tax and costs claimed half of that. If I didn’t work the land myself I'd pay even more for labour. So what's left?”

For Saraptsis, the issue is not one of survival. His second son is a manager in a large supermarket chain, and he himself earns a pension he can live off.

But for many farmers across Greece, the issue is existential. For ten days they have blockaded highways with tractors, and threaten to march on Athens.

Athenians are mostly dismissive. They point to the fact that farmers were once a pampered constituency. Two decades ago they paid no social security, and until two years ago their tax was just six percent. But if austerity came late, it came swiftly. 

Farmers' income tax doubled two years ago to 13 percent. They elected Syriza last year, which promised to relieve them of a crisis-era property tax. Instead, it doubled their income tax again, and eliminated their diesel subsidy. It also raised sales tax on seeds, livestock feeds and pesticides from 13 to 23 percent. All this massively increased the capital farmers need to set aside to stay in business.

The reason for this debacle was that after locking horns with its creditors in the Eurozone for six months, Syriza capitulated to punitive terms for a third, $93bn bailout loan. Among other things, it agreed to cut social security spending by almost $2bn a year - one percent of GDP.

This was the spark that set the tinder alight. Farmers currently pay a flat annual fee of between $780 and $1,300 a year to the Agricultural Insurance Organisation (OGA). The government now says they should pay 27 percent of their income, which amounts to thousands of dollars even for the poorest.

“The government is asking us to pay 26 percent income tax, plus all of next year’s taxes up-front. It’s tripling our social security contributions and keeping the property tax it was going to abolish… this is a struggle for survival,” says Rizos Maroudas, head of the Larissa farmers’ union in central Greece. “We’ll end up on the dole, or as serfs on our own land.”

Desperation creates strange bedfellows, and the proposed social security reform has now brought farmers closer to urban professionals, who are threatened with the same contributions regime. Both plan to demonstrate at a general strike the civil service has called for Thursday.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

More than a hundred farm vehicles blockaded the Korinth toll post on February 2, as part of a nationwide highway blockade farmers launched ten days ago.
Greek agriculture is worth about $7.2bn, or 3.8 percent of the economy. That alone makes it socially and politically important, because it employs an estimated 700,000 people full-time; but it is a strategically important piece of the economy, because most of its value - $5.2bn – came in the form of export revenue last year, accounting for a fifth of all foreign income according tothe Panhellenic Exporters’ Association. That capital is key to paying down Greece’s onerous debt, because the only way to export capital is to import it.

Moreover, agriculture has proven surprisingly resilient. In the face of last year’s global slowdown, Greek exports fell by 21 percent. Agriclutural exports fell by just six percent. However, farmers now fear that the government’s measures will undermine their competitiveness.

At the very least, they want more of their expenses deducted from taxable income. “If the government wants to see me as a business, then I should have the benefits as well as the disadvantages of that,” says Dimitris Dimitriadis, head of the eastern Mani farmers’ union in the Peloponnese. “For instance, if I invest in a tractor, the government allows me to offset 10 percent of that cost per year for five years... So it recognises only half the expense.”

He points out that the government subsidises new jobs in other industries for six months. “If all this applies to businesses why doesn’t it apply to me?”

The government counters that it will spend more than $11bn in EU subsidies on farmers over a seven-year period; but farmers like Dimitriadis believe that that policy adheres to an outdated model of spoon-feeding.

“Last year I got 1,100 euros in subsidies,” says Konstantinos Panayotopoulos, who grows raisins and olives on ten hectares in Korinth. “I need to invest 70,000 in next year’s crop. Who cares if we’re in Europe? I don’t care for subsidies. Do they want us to produce? Then leave us alone.”

End of an era

Panayotopoulos is in his 70s, and typical of the fact that Greek farmers rarely retire. This explains why they are unimpressed by the government’s argument that their pension will rise from about $400 to about $500 under the new regime.

Agriculture minister Vangelis Apostolou has dismissed any notion of withdrawing the social security reform. “That’s like asking us to blow our agreement with creditors sky high, and put our country back in danger of leaving the Eurozone – even the European Union,” he said on January 24. At issue, he says, is the fact that the government will spend as much as $3.7bn topping up OGA this year.

“Eighty percent of the money [contributed by the state to OGA] goes to people who are not farmers,” counters Dimitriadis. “The Roma are paid out of OGA, so are people with family benefits and so are paraplegics and returnees from the diaspora. If OGA has a million enrolments, only 400,000 are truly farmers.”

Many farmers are afraid that the new policies, unless drastically revised, will lead them off the land.

Much of the economy depends on agriculture and it will suffer. You can already see the effects in the shops and businesses of Larissa,” says Yiorgos Roustas, a journalist who covers agriculture in the plain of Thessaly, Greece’s breadbasket.

“But the main effect is that small landholders won't survive. Most of the farmers at roadblocks are in this group. They're the ones who supplement their farming income with income from another profession. They will have to quit and sell their farms for a song,” he says.

The Greek state’s economy has been ruled by small and medium-sized enterprises for all of its two-century long history. It is they who still generate 90 percent of employment. Austerity struck the urban economy first, and shuttered a quarter of a million businesses – one third of the total. Millions more are thought to be moribund. It may now have the same effect on the rural economy.

Asked whether he is worried that his two sons will sell the kiwi farm, Yiorgos Saraptsis, shrugs. “For as long as I am alive, I will work it,” he says. “After that, they can do what they like.” 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Greece reacts to EU's hardliners on refugees

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Greece’s migration minister dismisses a Belgian proposal to build a camp for almost half a million migrants in Greece as “dangerous nonsense”.

Talking to Al Jazeera after a two-day summit of European Union interior ministers in Amsterdam, Yannis Mouzalas said his Belgian counterpart, Jan Jambon, mooted the idea of expelling Greece from the Schengen open borders area, because of its inability to stanch the flow of refugees from Turkey. 

“He introduced the subject with some dangerous nonsense about building a concentration camp for 400,000 people in Greece, and we all moved on. It simply wasn’t put forward,” said Mouzalas.

Greece has fiercely resisted the idea of becoming a concentration camp for migrants. Last September it was forced to agree to create temporary space for 50,000 people – half the European Union’s mandated capacity.

Now a chorus of immigration hardliners in the EU wants Greece’s northern border crossing with former Yugoslav Macedonia to be sealed. “Greece is in danger of becoming a black box [for refugees] if these flows don’t decrease,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the Financial Times last month. He repeated that fear at the World Economic Forum in Davos this month. 

Slovenia gave new impetus to this idea on the eve of the Amsterdam summit, suggesting that the EU concentrate on strengthening the former Yugoslav Macedonian border with Greece as a more defensible one than the Greek-Turkish maritime border.

That could turn Greece into a vast screening area for hundreds of thousands of arrivals. Those qualifying for asylum could in theory be relocated elsewhere in the EU.

Many EU members, however, including Slovenia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, have resisted the idea of relocation. Last September, the EU agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees out of Greece and Italy, who currently receive almost all irregular migration into the EU. Greece was to be relieved of 66,000 refugees under that quota.

“Instead we have relocated 900 people in Europe,” says Mouzalas. “We have another 930 people ready for relocation and 248 of these have been approved. I believe only 13 states have offered places [out of the EU 28]. Instead of relocation, we are closing borders, building concentration camps and removing people’s valuables, smartphones and jewellery,” he said in reference to a decision by the Danish government to strip asylum-seekers of their valuables to help pay for their stay. “These things are not representative of Europe. They are not European decisions.”

Dress rehearsal?

The port of Peiraieus near Athens this week had a taste of the unrest Greece might expect if EU hardliners got their way.

Police prevented hundreds of migrants from boarding buses to the border, which is their main gateway to the European Union. Migrants sat on the asphalt of the major artery that runs the circumference of the port and protested for half an hour, bringing traffic to a standstill.

“When we asked police why they wouldn’t let people on the buses, they said ‘because there are 5,000 people already waiting at the border,’” says Sotiris Alexopoulos, who co-founded a volunteer force called Peiraieus Solidarity. “In the end the buses returned and the people were able to continue. We cooked them some soup and gave them clothes and shoes.” 

Authorities have allowed Peiraieus Solidarity to use a passenger terminal as a storage area for food and clothing. More than a hundred migrants lingered there well after the protest, resting and allowing their children to play. A Syrian boy and girl pushed a supermarket trolley across its vast concrete expanse, shrieking with delight.

“I think they will stay here overnight and move on to the border tomorrow,” said Simone, a Dutch volunteer with Refugee Boat Foundation. Peiraieus Solidarity has become a focal point for volunteers and donations from Greece and across Europe. This spirit of co-operation stands in stark contrast to the impasse among governments.

“If the borders close everything changes. We haven’t considered what that means,” says Alexopoulos.

Volunteers tell Al Jazeera that the Greek border crossing at Eidomeni is currently opened every half hour for about 50 people, and is sometimes it is kept closed for up to two hours.

“I think it is criminal for this to be happening before relocation is set up,” says Mouzalas, “because right now this humanitarian corridor that starts in Eidomeni is the only legal route for migration. It allows us to know how many cross each day and who they are... If this is abolished, the borders are thousands of kilometres long. Illegal entry and smugglers ands traffickers will be reinforced, and it will of course be a very convenient passage for terrorists.”

A Greek proposal

Greek officials have focused on ways to protect the sensitive eastern border with Turkey, which is the main entry point for refugees and migrants into Europe. Some of them resent the money being offered to Turkey.

“Why should we pay Turkey to enforce its own laws?” asks Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, which receives more than half the migrants smuggled across the Aegean. “I suggest that instead of chartering ferry boats to bring refugees from Lesbos to Athens, the government should send them directly to Turkey to bring them here for sorting. At least that way we won’t see people drowning, and we’ll cut the smugglers out of their business.”

The EU last year offered Turkey €3.2bn to do a better job of policing smugglers on its shores, but that seems to have done little. A European Commission report last month said Turkey was not doing enough to police borders. “Turkey needs to take concrete steps in order to improve the capacity of the agencies in charge of border management. Recourse to conscripts for border surveillance is a matter of concern,” the report said. 

As many as 3,000 people continue to arrive in Greece daily, despite high winds and low temperatures. Forty-two people drowned last Friday when two boats capsized in Greek waters, most of them women and children.

Ministers at Amsterdam discussed a version of this proposal. Greece has suggested that police intercept boats as they alight on Greek shores, and escort migrants to camps for identification. Refugees would be separated from economic migrants. Frontex, the European external borders agency, would then sail the latter group back to Turkey “the next day” according to Mouzalas.

The problem is that to work, this plan would require large numbers of patrol boats and a much heavier police presence. Most boats are currently intercepted by volunteers, because police are overwhelmed with the task of identification. Greece would need reinforcement from EU members, whose track record is poor.

“We have asked for 26 patrol boats. We have received eight,” says Mouzalas. “We asked for 1,800 officers and received 800. We have asked for 47 ambulances and have received none.”

Short of resettling refugees directly from camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, however, there seem to be no other ideas for stopping their flow once they reach the Aegean; and the increasingly xenophobic mood among European countries does not conduce to agreement on more open immigration policies, even if they are potentially more effective.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Greek gold miners prepare to fight Syriza

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Trucks lie idle at Skouries goldmine as workers are told to down tools
Hundreds of Greek gold miners and technical staff are preparing to stage “powerful demonstrations” directed against the leftwing Syriza government, unions tell Al Jazeera. Their employer, Canada’s Eldorado Gold Corp., announced days ago that it will lay them off and mothball a key mine in northern Greece after years of government obstruction. 

“We’re not going to take this lying down,” the miners’ union chief, Yiorgos Hatzis, told this network. 

“Everyone is against the government, which won’t let us work. This indignation has gone on for a year. Everyone understands that it is this government that stands between our bread and us.”

Eldorado will dismiss all but a handful of the 688 people working on its Skouries mine in the Kassandra peninsula in northern Greece at the end of the month, because for three years governments have delayed issuing a building permit for the gold processing plant there. A further 500 workers would have been hired to build the plant.

A miner works on the main mineshaft at Skouries in this file photo
A second mine, at Olympias, will also be mothballed at the end of March, Eldorado says, if a permit to expand the processing plant there is withheld. That will lead to another 600 job losses.

Although Eldorado's investment plan and environmental impact assessments have cleared parliament and survived more than a dozen court challenges, it is the quotidian bureaucracy of government that is bringing the mining giant to its knees.

Eldorado CEO Paul Wright said the company has done all the work that can possibly be done under existing permits. “We’ve got to the stage where we’re digging holes and filling them in again,” he told Al Jazeera in a private interview.  He said the company was still tallying up its cost overruns, but could no longer resist calls from international investors to cut its losses and pull out of Greece. 

Wright was in Athens to meet Environment Minister Panos Skourletis, in a last ditch attempt to smooth over differences. The meeting produced no breakthrough. "We're coming from very different places," Wright said.

Eldorado has invested $700 million developing Skouries, Olympias and three other concessions in northern Greece over the past eight years. Skouries and Olympias alone hold proven reserves of more than nine million ounces of gold, 72 million ounces of silver and 767,000 tonnes of copper. Even at today’s depressed prices, the metals are worth more than $13bn.

An 8.5km tunnel is to connect the Olympias mine with a processing plant at Stratoni, but the mine and tunnel could be mothballed in April
The company estimates that over the course of the mines’ lifetimes, Greece would become Europe’s largest gold producer, with export revenues of $490mn a year. In addition, the Greek economy would absorb $5.8bn in salaries, social security payments and payments to suppliers. Eldorado currently employs 2,000 people and 3,000 contractors. 

Political fallout

“I think what we completely missed in Greece was how this investment would become politicised to the extent that it has,” Wright told a packed press conference. “It has unfortunately been treated as a political toy for politicians to play very sick political games as opposed to an investment being treated on its own merits.”

Eldorado’s announcement seemed to throw the government into a panic.  Skourletis called the move “blackmail”.

“The company hasn’t paid a single euro in taxes since 2007,” he told Skai television. Eldorado says that while it has paid no corporate tax, because it is posting losses during the mines’ development phase, it has paid over $130 million in VAT and social security.

Asked about the fact that the labour government has alienated miners it claims to represent, Skourletis said, “Some of them have lost their class consciousness.”

Greece’s newly elected conservative opposition leader flew into the breach. “The damage is enormous,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis in his inauguralspeech to parliament members. “It goes beyond the local community. It affects the entire country’s image. At a critical time, we’re sending completely the wrong message to whatever investors still believe in this country's numerous development prospects.”
Miners work the ore face at Madem Lakkos near Stratoni. The mine produces lead and zinc, and is not thought worth operating without Olympias and Skouries
Greece has been in recession almost continuously for the past eight years, losing a quarter of its economy. Unemployment now stands at 25 percent. “If the Greek economy fails to attract investments worth 100bn euros over the next 3-5 years, we will never emerge from this recession,” Mitsotakis said.

Deputy head of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis, who oversees the Greek adjustment programme, voiced his concern in an interview with the Greek daily Kathimerini on Friday. “It must be made very clear to the Greek authorities – they need to cultivate a positive business environment,” he said.

Eldorado believes that a vocal anti-mining minority hijacked Syriza when it was looking for a way to flag its environmentalist credentials. "Syriza was sold a bill of goods,” says Wright. “It wasn't the anti-mining activists that got Syriza elected. It's the other way around."  

A disaster foretold?

The Skouries mine was again at the centre of a political storm last September. Days before a general election, the Syriza government rescinded a key environmental permit to landscape a tailings deposit there, crippling the project. The permit had been issued in 2011. 

Hundreds of miners and their families locked themselves into mineshafts until after the election, when the Council of State, Greece’s supreme administrative court, vindicated Eldorado.

The decision acknowledges “the adoption of the best available techniques in all aspects of the controversial activity (extraction, metallurgical method, waste and water management, dust minimisation, disposal of tailings etc.).”

The processing plant at Stratoni, with ship loading facilities
Similar delays and setbacks destroyed Eldorado’s predecessor in Greece. In 2002, TVX Gold was forced to merge with another Canadian miner, Kinross, after sinking a quarter of a billion dollars into Skouries, Olympias and a third mine over seven years. They filed for bankruptcy the following year.

Miners remember the hardship of those layoffs, but they say this time will be worse. “Back in 2002 there were jobs in cities. Now there is no work in the urban economy for anyone,” says Hatzis. “The land here is infertile. You can’t go and sow crops and raise cattle. The only real alternative is to leave –not just the area but the country.”

Eldorado seems determined to avoid the fate of TVX. It manages a dozen mines around the world with a turnover of a billion dollars a year, so it has the stamina to stay in the game; but Olympias and Skouries added value to the company because they were its “key growth projects”. Eldorado’s share price dropped 19 percent following the company’s announcement. 

By putting the mines on maintenance, Eldorado is buying time and transferring a political cost to the government. “We’re here to finish the job. That’s why we came and that’s why we’ll remain,” Wright told journalists. Asked how long he was prepared to wait, he said, “a very long time.”

“These mines will get built,” insists Wright. “These mines will operate, and they will operate because it’s frankly what the broader society wishes to occur. It’s simply a matter of time.”   

Friday, 15 January 2016

Greek reform: The Force Awakens?

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Until last week, the left appeared unchallenged at Greece’s helm. Conservative New Democracy had been at sea since its election loss to Syriza a year ago and again last September. It bungled a nationwide election for its own party leadership in November, when software failed to perform. In the defeatist atmosphere, a grand coalition with Syriza to push through painful austerity measures seemed likely.

But on Sunday, the party base elected 48 year-old reformist Kyriakos Mitsotakis to lead the party, and that has set the stage for a confrontation with the ruling leftists, and another turbulent political year in Greece.

“We have but one purpose: For New Democracy to express all those forces that are opposed to the populism of an incompetent government,” Mitsotakis said on Sunday night. The mayhem of media and supporters in his office exuded the energy of a general election victory.

Mitsotakis’ election has caught Syriza at an especially vulnerable moment. More than 70 percent of Greeks believe that the country deteriorated last year under Syriza, according to a recent survey for a major Sunday newspaper. More than half believe this year will be worse.

The government stands on a majority of just three MPs in parliament. Since capitulating to austerity in July, it has been forced into the same straitjacket of unpopular measures as its socialist and conservative predecessors; but public anger at a mandatory pension reform that would result in a 15 percent cut has presented it with greatest challenge to date, because Syriza had vowed never to touch pensions.

“The government won’t find a convenient crutch with its social security interventions,” said Mitsotakis during his election campaign. “We will support structural changes. The coming pension cuts are a result of Syriza’s policy.”

“New Democracy won’t become Tsirpas’ accessory,” he said, referring to the leftist prime minister.

Reform vs. Populism

In defence, Syriza has responded. “Mr. Mitsotakis seems to express… the hardest neoliberal positions,” a party spokesperson said after his election, “such as the dismissal of state employees – positions which have been rejected by the Greek people.”

As minister of public administration reform, Mitsotakis presided over some 5,000 dismissals from the 620,000-strong state payroll in 2014, and introduced worker evaluations. Syriza repealed the evaluation law and hired back everyone who wanted to return.

Mitsotakis’ political gumption brought him admirers as well as enemies. “He stuck to his guns when everybody in the party was against what he was doing,” says Ioannis Leonis, a taxi driver. “That is very uncommon. But will his MPs now rally behind him?”

None of New Democracy’s 75 Members of Parliament openly declared their support for Mitsotakis during his campaign. Like most Greeks, they expected the winner to be Mitsotakis’ opponent, interim party chief Evangelos Meimarakis, a sexagenarian former defence minister who hails from New Democracy’s dominant populists.

Mitsotakis is aware that he hails from a minority. “Not everyone shouldered the reformist burden of the previous government,” he said on January 5. “Some people stood forward and some stood back in silence.” 

Yet he appears determined to go on the offensive. “New Democracy needs a reboot,” he said on the campaign trail.

The ‘outsider’

Mitsotakis is often referred to as the outsider candidate, but he is hardly an outsider to politics. His father served as conservative prime minister. His sister served as mayor of Athens and foreign minister, and lost a bid for the party leadership in 2009. The reformist pedigree now seems to vindicate the family.

When Kyriakos’ father, Konstantine, became premier in 1990, the state controlled some 70 percent of the economy. The elder Mitsotakis embarked on an ambitious privatisation programme. He liberalised banking, air transport and telecommunications. A series of public-private partnership deals created the new Athens airport, the Athens Metro, its ring road and Europe’s largest cable-stayed bridge over the Corinthian Gulf. The government fell before it could set into motion plans to sell public land and privatise refineries and new power plants.

The younger Mitsotakis has demonstrated the same liberalising and reformist tendencies. But can he win over his party and the people?

“He needs to turn to a different clientele,” says Andreas Andrianopoulos, one of the key reformers in the elder Mitsotakis’ administration. “If he turns with passion to the private sector he might counterbalance the forces within the state that support Syriza. If he doesn’t do this he is lost.”

Not everyone agrees. “If one looks at the ND party, the large majority of its rank and file belongs to the populist and patron-client tradition. If [Mitsotakis] tries to purge all of them he would be risking a breakup of the party,” says George Pagoulatos, who teaches political economy at the Athens University of Economy and Business.

He believes Mitsotakis should “marginalize the populist element… and turn New Democracy into a party whose programme and rhetoric and practice are overwhelmingly reformist, even if it carries along the dead wood of a parochial party mechanism.”

History would seem to bear him out. Socialist party reformists alienated their populists, sending them into the arms of an obscure leftwing party. In 2009 that party took just 4.6 percent of the vote. Today it is in power. New Democracy is no stranger to fragmentation. Since the 1990s it has spawned no fewer than seven rivals, the most formidable being Golden Dawn.

Greeks are fatigued with the pace of deceit. “Is [Mitsotakis] a good thing? I don’t know. We’ll see,” says Maria Thetis, a retired dancer. “We’ve seen so many people in power, including from the Mitsotakis family, and sometimes I think everyone is playing us for fools.”

Much is at stake. Greece got where it is by failing to become a more transparent and meritocratic society. The resulting crisis broke the two-party system and brought more extreme parties into parliament. If mainstream politicians cannot persuade their own political machines to change, they stand little chance of convincing the nation.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Mitotakis' election offers Greece new hope

Conservative MP Kyriakos Mitsotakis was poised to win the New Democracy party leadership on Sunday night. With three quarters of precincts reporting, he had won over 51 percent of a nationwide vote. The final result was to be announced on Monday morning, but as the final precincts are the Athenian urban vote, where the reformist Mitsotakis has strong support, he is expected to widen his lead against populist Evangelos Meimarakis.

The result was an upset to the populist camp, which was understood to have the support of former party leader and PM Konstantinos Karamanlis, nephew of the party founder. Meimarakis was the front runner in a first voting round three weeks ago, but Mitsotakis garnered the support of the third and fourth candidates, Apostolos Tzitzikostas and Adonis Georgiadis, forced out of the second round.

The election is a game changer for the Syriza-led governing coalition. New Democracy has spent all of 2015 in disarray, following its fall from power in January last year. This gave Syriza an essentially opposition-free year in which to make spectacular negotiating blunders and ultimately a U-turn in the anti-austerity policy that formed the basis of its election. This left Greece at something of a political dead end. The crisis has already claimed socialist and conservative governments. Syriza seemed to be the only option left.

Meimarakis was seen as a consensus-builder who might enter into a grand coalition with the ruling leftists. Mitsotakis, whose signature legislation in 2014 was a system of assessment for state employees, and who presided over the dismissal of some 5,000 people from the public payroll, will be harder to coax into such an arrangement. Syriza overturned all of his policies as a matter of ideology. Mitsotakis can be expected to respond with a trenchant opposition style.

Mitsotakis' political office in central Athens was filled with media and supporters on Sunday night. The euphoria of the scene was reminiscent of a general election victory. It is hard to imagine that his supporters see his election to the party leadership as anything other than a foreshadowing of his election to the premiership.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Greece should embrace the European border agency

The European Commission last week unveiled its proposal for a European Border and Coast Guard to replace Frontex, the existing external borders agency, which operates on a voluntary basis. Incredible as it may seem, the 500 million-strong European Union does not have a single, federal authority managing its borders. Frontex depends on EU members volunteering staff and equipment, and EU states at external borders requesting them. The new agency would be the first significant expansion of federalism since the introduction of the euro.

Lesvos' memorial to the war dead for the period of the Balkan Wars, World War One and the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1912-1922) faces Turkey's shores, a reminder that it was the last of these three conflicts that hurt Greece. The memorial, possibly modeled on the Statue of Liberty, strengthens Lesvos' impression as the new Ellis Island. 

The new Agency is largely a response to the problems Greece and the EU encountered policing the waters of the eastern Aegean. The Greeks resisted invoking Rapid Interventions, which would have forced their EU partners to cough up more staff and equipment than they had volunteered, because they wanted to prove their ability to police sovereign borders. 

If adopted, the new Agency would be empowered in several ways: It could unilaterally intervene at the EU’s external borders if national authorities could not or would not. To do this, it would have a standing pool of 1,500 border guards and an equipment pool. (In contrast, Frontex requested 743 guest officers to work on the Greek border this year; it received 447). The Agency would be able to launch border operations jointly with third countries and would be empowered to deport irregular migrants.

Greek objections are understandable. The Greeks have lost sovereignty over financial and fiscal policy through the economic crisis. They do not wish to lose responsibility for border security as well – especially on so sensitive a border as that with Turkey, which has periodically been the focus of territorial disputes. Particularly galling is the idea of joint EU patrols with Turks and Makedonski, over which Greece will have no jurisdiction.

Artists painted this face on a disused storage facility overlooking the harbour of Lesvos in the summer of 2015 - a dewy-eyed Greece looking upon the newly exiled. 

Running against this concern is the greater concern that Europe has to act if it is to preserve its internal open borders regime under the Schengen Treaty. France, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and former Yugoslav Macedonia have all temporarily re-instated national borders.

The Greeks should see this as an opportunity for three reasons. First, it marks an abandonment of European hypocrisy on migration, by signalling that EU states are in this together. For years, the countries of central and northern Europe have allowed Greece and Italy to be the breakwaters for waves of refugees from the unstable, unfree or war-torn countries that surround the continent. Their voters have steadfastly refused an EU migration policy, fearing that it will involve annual immigration quotas. Eastern states rebuffed an attempt by Brussels to impose mandatory refugee quotas last May, and after the Paris attacks last month withdrew even from their voluntary quotas for refugee resettlement.

Three Eastern states’ position is doubly hypocritical. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were among the Soviet satellites which, after the fall of communism, produced the second-largest wave of economic migration to Europe in the last 20 years. In 2003, then still candidate countries whose EU membership was all but assured, they broke ranks with the majority European view against a second Gulf war, undermining both the basis for a common foreign and defence policy and destabilising Iraq – now one of the ten top refugee-producing countries.

The Greeks have never been exemplary Europeans, but they have traditionally been pro-Europe, and this is the second reason to embrace the Agency. Eurobarometer polls going back almost two decades show that they and the Cypriots are the strongest supporters of a European foreign and defence policy (precisely because of their concerns about Turkey, now the migration gateway into Europe). They elected to remain in the Eurozone despite seven years of austerity and an on-going recession. They could now put themselves at the forefront of this expansion of Brussels’ powers by demanding that the new Agency be headquartered in Athens.

The third and most important reason to embrace the new agency is that migration pressure on Europe is unlikely to stop anytime soon. This year has seen a twentyfold increase over last year of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean – 800,000 and counting.

The reasons are both political and environmental. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says 13.9mn people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014, bringing the global total to 59.5mn – the highest ever number. Three million of these became refugees – displaced outside their own country.

The UNHCR’s updated Mid-Year Trends report foresees that 2015 is “likely to exceed all previous years for global forced displacement.”

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has struck a note of warning: “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement, as well as the response required, is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”

Fuelling many of the conflicts that produce refugees is global warming. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has published findings concluding “that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.”

In a paper published last year, five climate experts found that “anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a 3-year drought as severe as that of 2007−2010 two to three times more likely than by natural variability alone.”

Contrary to America’s image as the nurturer of the dispossessed and persecuted, the EU has long been the destination for about two thirds of asylum seekers entering the developed world. Over the past two decades, over six million people have applied for asylum in the EU. But this trend is increasing.

In 1992 the EU faced its then-highest number of asylum applicants – 672,000 – after the fall of the communist east. Applications peaked again in 2001 at 424,000 after the end of the Yugoslav war. Last year, Europe (including the EU) received 714,000 applications, according to the UNHCR. In the first nine months of this year, EU states alone had received 892,000 and the number is expected to top a million by the end of the year, according to the European Asylum Support Office.

In contrast, US asylum applications last year were 134,000, and the Obama administration has pledged itself to taking in 20,000 refugees this year.

Europe is slowly awakening to the reality that it is The New Colossus. Failing states, failing environments and sectarian conflicts on its periphery will fuel migration flows for years to come. Greece, with its archipelago of islands virtually touching the Turkish coast, will remain the most attractive route for smugglers enabling their passage. For all these reasons, a European border agency is inevitable. The Greeks can embrace it, and use it to bury once and for all their image as the EU’s enfant terrible.