Greece: The Scapegoat of a Migrant Crisis

7 MINS READJan 29, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
Macedonian police push back immigrants from Greece near the village of Idomeni on Dec. 4, 2015.

Europe's immigration crisis shows no signs of abating, and the European Union is struggling to figure out how to address it. The bloc's original strategies of cooperating with Turkey to limit the number of asylum seekers and redistributing migrants across the Continent have clearly failed. Now, EU member states are looking for alternative approaches as they try to stem the tide of asylum seekers flowing into Europe, and they appear to have reached an agreement on who is to blame: Greece.

In recent weeks, several EU members have threatened to expel Greece from the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls among its signatories. According to countries like Austria, Greece has failed to patrol its borders and should be punished for it. On Jan. 27, the European Commission issued a report saying that Greece "is seriously neglecting its obligations" and that there are "serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border controls." Brussels gave Athens three months to improve its border controls, or risk being ousted from the passport-free area. But kicking Greece out of the Schengen zone will not have much impact on the influx of migrants to Europe since Greece does not share land borders with any other Schengen members.

Still, it would punish Greece in an indirect way; though asylum seekers would not be affected by the move, Greek citizens traveling to Western Europe would. Should Greece's Schengen membership be suspended, its citizens would be treated as third-country nationals when flying elsewhere in the European Union. This suggests that the threat of expulsion is purely a political move aimed at pressuring Greek authorities (through angry Greek voters) to improve the country's border controls with Turkey. However, the strategy has its risks: If Greece is suspended from the Schengen Agreement, there is no guarantee that voters' ire would be directed solely toward the ruling Syriza party.

In fact, removing Greece from the Continent's passport-free zone could inflame anti-EU sentiments in Greece, reducing popular support for the eurozone and the economic reforms linked to it. The Syriza government controls only a small majority in Parliament and is facing protests over its controversial plan to reform the country's pension system. If the Schengen group ousts Greece, the current administration could collapse if lawmakers refuse to move forward with planned reforms as a form of protest against the European Union. This would derail Athens' bailout program and add to the uncertainty surrounding Greece's future.

In the next few months, two major issues will consume most of the Greek government's attention: An uptick in asylum seekers, and international creditors' review of Greece's bailout program. As the weather improves around March or April, Greece will likely see migration flows increase — a development that will coincide with Athens' negotiations over the next tranche of financial aid, and potentially, some sort of debt relief down the road. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will have to find a way to handle these issues while keeping social unrest within tolerable limits.

Tsipras is hoping to connect the immigration crisis with his country's bailout program, asking for flexibility in the implementation of economic reform amid Athens' additional efforts to cope with massive waves of migrants. But his strategy is not working, mostly because the governments in Northern Europe are linking the two issues in a much different way. Many conservative politicians in Northern Europe refuse to yield to the requests of a country that, from their perspective, is not doing enough to mitigate the immigration crisis. Though Greece will eventually succeed in securing some form of debt relief, it will come in spite of the immigration crisis — not because of it.

Finding Other Ways to Isolate Greece

And so, EU members are looking for alternative ways to isolate Greece from the rest of the Continent. One option on the table would be to strengthen border controls between Macedonia and Greece, with EU countries contributing additional border guards and equipment. The goal of this proposal is to sever the Balkan route, a common path for migrants that connects Greece with Austria and Germany. The Macedonian government has welcomed the idea, adding that Skopje is open to EU assistance in easing the pressure migration patterns have put on the country.

But the plan is a complicated one, at least politically, because it would mean that the European Union would be helping a non-member country (Macedonia) while harming one of its own (Greece). Additionally, the EU border control force, Frontex, is not allowed to operate in non-member states. These issues make it unlikely that the European Union and Macedonia will ultimately reach a deal.

That said, Macedonia will probably still receive personnel and material aid through bilateral agreements with individual countries. According to Politico, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker informed Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar that because Macedonia is not an EU member, other member states would have to reach bilateral deals with Skopje if they wished to send their police forces to the Balkan state. If confirmed, this information would suggest that the commission supports the bilateral approach to blocking the Balkan migration route. In fact, some bilateral arrangements have already been made: In early January, for example, the Hungarian government sent 31 police officers to help their Macedonian counterparts patrol the Greece-Macedonia border for a month.

If Macedonia does strengthen its border security, Greece would bear the brunt of the burden because asylum seekers would not stop arriving from Turkey; they would simply have a harder time moving farther north, beyond Greece. This would likely worsen Greece's unrest, at least in the short term, as immigrants become bottled up within Greece's borders. However, the situation would probably resolve itself given time, since most asylum seekers do not want to stay in Greece.

In the event that traveling through Macedonia is no longer an option, many migrants would look for alternative routes to get deeper into the Continent, including Albania to the west and Bulgaria to the east. The Black Sea could eventually replace the Aegean Sea as a migration path, and some asylum seekers might even return to the original migration route through the central Mediterranean. If they did, Italy would once again find itself at the center of Europe's immigration crisis, and countries like Austria, France, Switzerland and Slovenia would turn their attention to closing their borders with Italy.  

A Solution Remains Elusive

In the end, Europe probably will not be able to find a single, comprehensive solution to its current migration crisis. Instead, as Stratfor has predicted, the Continent's response has been a combination of poorly enforced EU decisions and unilateral measures by individual member states. Though negotiations at the Continental level will continue, countries will try to become progressively less attractive to those seeking asylum within Europe's borders, whether by tightening their security measures or reducing social benefits for foreigners.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether Greece is suspended from the Schengen area, EU members will likely use Greece's failure to control its borders to justify stronger border control measures of their own, for longer periods of time. This would be one way to keep the Schengen Agreement in place, at least nominally, while re-establishing border controls in Europe.

Such measures could deter economic migrants, who travel to Europe in search of a better life rather than to escape war or persecution. Consequently, nationals from the Western Balkans or North Africa will find it more difficult to make their way to Northern Europe. However, Syrians, who still make up the largest group of asylum seekers, are still protected by international law.

Even with tougher migration rules in place, enforcement will continue to be problematic. Countries such as Germany have increased deportations in recent weeks, but only a small fraction of people whose asylum applications have been rejected are actually being ejected from these states. The head of Germany's police union recently admitted that migrants who are expelled to Austria often return to Germany a few hours later. So while border controls, fences and tougher legislation will probably reduce the number of immigrants coming into Europe, they will by no means solve the Continent's ongoing crisis completely.

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