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Nov 24, 2015 | 01:54 GMT

5 mins read

How the Migrant Crisis Could Accelerate a Grexit

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Stratfor laid out on Nov. 11 the potential dangers of Slovenia closing its borders to migrants, establishing a barrier across the heavily transited Balkan migration corridor. Two days later, a terrorist attack in Paris led to a hardening of attitudes across the Continent. In response, the Slovenian government announced Nov. 19 that it would no longer allow economic migrants — those who are not from war zones such as Syria and Afghanistan — to enter its territory. The announcement caused a chain reaction back along the migration route as Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, anticipating a backlog forming in their territories, swiftly closed their own borders. This has left many migrants stranded along the route, powerless to move forward and now unable to backtrack.

Stratfor previously outlined the impact of this development — namely, the implications of migrants stranded in the Balkans, a traditionally fractious area with low tolerance and capability when it comes to feeding extra mouths. And now the first snows have begun to fall, heralding the onset of a harsh Balkan winter. Beyond the immediate plight of the migrants, however, there is a very real possibility that the burden of additional displaced persons could enflame still-simmering ethnic disputes in the region. And there are implications farther south: Another bottleneck in the immigration route could have far-reaching effects on Greece, which is situated at the migrants' entry point to Europe.

The primary route of migrant travel that developed this year began with the short crossing from the Turkish mainland to various nearby Greek islands — Lesbos, Chios or Kos — on flimsy makeshift craft. From these islands, migrants make their way to Athens by ferry before traveling by land to Thessaloniki and up to the border with Macedonia. But the closing of the Macedonian border and its reinforcement with physical barriers seals the obvious exit point for these migrants. This is problematic for two reasons. First, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the flows of new migrants are expected to increase, even in the winter months. This confounds previous expectations that the cold would inhibit migration. Second, Greece has proved unable to restrict the flow of migrants into its territory: Beyond the fact that it is hard to build a fence around an island, the government in Athens has so far had little incentive to stem the flow. 

There is now the potential for large numbers of migrants to end up stuck in Greece. This could have severe repercussions for the ruling Syriza government. The leftist Syriza party has a much more humanitarian attitude toward migrants than previous Greek administrations did. Instead of making Greece more inhospitable to newcomers in the style of its predecessors, Syriza has been doing the reverse, putting an end to draconian legislation and releasing migrants from detention camps. Increasing numbers of migrants will increase anti-immigrant sentiment, which could easily turn the population against Syriza and its coalition partners. The coalition has already seen its majority cut to just three seats over the past week, thanks to the departure of two parliament members protesting reforms undertaken by the government at the behest of Greece's creditors.

This weakening plays into the broader movement toward political radicalism in Greece. Since 2009, when Athens revealed the full extent of its economic woes, the country has been locked in a vicious cycle in which it receives bailouts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that come attached to strict austerity reforms. The reforms create antipathy among the populace, undermining the establishment parties and empowering radicals. This in turn leads to more confrontations with Greece's creditors. This was the pattern that led to the empowerment of Syriza in January, and to six months of confrontation until Syriza's bluff was called in July, when it showed itself unable to follow through and leave the European Union — partly because it had not received a clear mandate from the people to do so. Therefore, Syriza had no choice but to adopt the reforms demanded by its creditors and was somewhat co-opted into the perceived establishment in the process.

Stratfor did not expect Greece to leave the eurozone in the confrontation of 2015, mainly because a majority of Greeks wanted to remain in the currency bloc, but with each of these cyclical confrontations a Grexit grows nearer. The latest reforms that Syriza has adopted have already been met with resistance, both from the rebel parliament members and the population itself, which undertook a general strike on Nov. 12. Syriza may be able to use the costs of these migration flows as bargaining chips in its ongoing negotiations with creditors, requesting more leeway as a result of these unforeseen circumstances. But with the Syriza party now seemingly part of the establishment and connected with the austerity reforms, an opportunity has opened up on the political scene for a radical party that might become the figurehead of Greek rebelliousness.

The growth of anti-migrant sentiment across Europe is helping to empower the right, which traditionally takes a harder line against migrants, and Greece has the potential to experience the same phenomenon. Up to now, Greece's right-wing parties have been fairly subdued, partly as a result of dark national memories of military dictatorship in the 1970s. Nevertheless, this confluence of events could benefit the far right, which is pontificating a combination of rebelliousness, anti-austerity and anti-immigration sentiments. To complicate matters, the Syriza government is in a coalition with one of Greece's right-wing parties, the Independent Greeks. Though this party has somewhat tempered its excesses since being in government, others are as ardent as ever. Golden Dawn, a far-right party that received 7 percent of the vote in September's election, could well be placed to take advantage of these difficult circumstances. Given that Golden Dawn is extremely Euroskeptic, such a development would surely bring Greece much closer to the exit from the European Union that the country has been moving toward for the past six years. 

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