Greek migration crisis enters worst-case scenario
By Eric Maurice
The European Commission and the Dutch EU presidency warned on Tuesday (23 February) of a humanitarian crisis in the Western Balkans and "especially in Greece,” adding that preparation for "contingency plans" was under way.
The warning comes after border controls along the Western Balkan migration route were tightened in recent days in Austria and Macedonia.
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It is the realisation of a worst-case scenario becoming reality for EU authorities, in which Greece would be in effect cut off from the Schengen area and left to cope with hundreds of thousands of stranded refugees, while still being itself in the middle of an economic and social crisis.
On Monday, Macedonia decided to deny entry to Afghan migrants and restricted access to Syrians and Iraqis.
The move followed last week's decision by Austria to cap to 80 the number of daily asylum applications and to 3,200 the number of entries, also under the condition that the people go to another country to apply for asylum.
The situation illustrates the growing rift between the actions of some EU and Balkan states and the common policies the European Commission and Germany have tried to put in place since the start of the migrant crisis last summer.
The result is growing and potentially dramatic pressure on Greece, where 2,000 to 4,000 migrants arrive on the islands each day. On Tuesday (22 February) alone, 1,130 refugees arrived at Athens Piraeus port, where they will have to be taken care of.
"We are concerned about the developments along the Balkan route and the humanitarian crisis that might unfold in certain countries especially in Greece," EU migration commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos and Dutch minister for migration Klaas Dijkhoff said in a joint statement.
They called on "all countries and actors along the route to prepare the necessary contingency planning to be able to address humanitarian needs, including reception capacities".
’Risk of fragmentation'
"In parallel," they said, "the commission is coordinating a contingency planning effort, to offer support in case of a humanitarian crisis both outside and within the EU, as well as to further coordinate border management."
Commission experts are already in Greece to assess the needs and what could be done in cooperation with the UN.
Faced with the new developments, the commission seems to be more helpless than ever.
"There is a clear risk of a fragmentation of the [Balkan] route," an EU official said, with countries deviating from previously agreed plans.
"We are concerned by the fact that member states are acting outside of the agreed framework," commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told journalists on Tuesday.
"We believe that member states should be working together and not against each other," she added, with Austria appearing to take the lead in moves to close the Balkan route.
On Wednesday (24 February), Vienna will host a meeting of Balkan countries involving Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
The commission was not invited. Neither was the Dutch presidency of the EU.
Last Friday, at the EU summit where Austria's decision to cap entries was discussed, EU sources said the Austrian leaders had promised not to organise the meeting.
Also last week, commissioner Avramopoulos wrote to the Austrian interior minister, saying that the cap on asylum applications was unlawful and that waving migrants through to other countries was contrary to polices agreed by EU countries.
The answer given by the Austrian government is being assessed by the commission's legal services, but on Tuesday the Austrian chancellor expressed his disagreement with the commission.
Werner Faymann said that the commission's demands to cancel the cap were "nonsense" and that Austria could not "surrender to that kind of advice".
Greece will also be kept out of Wednesday's Vienna meeting.
"We believe that Greece should be involved in all the discussions about measures that have a direct impact on it," the EU official said Tuesday.
Greek authorities summoned the Austrian ambassador on Tuesday to protest against the meeting, which they described as a "unilateral move which is not at all friendly toward our country".
During the recent EU summit, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras threatened in vain to block the adoption of the conclusions if he did not receive guarantees that borders would remain open.
The idea of closing borders in the Balkans, especially Macedonia's border with Greece, has been floated for several months, as Greece appeared not to control its frontiers.
It has been popular in the ranks of the EPP, the centre-right European political grouping in which German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Viktor Orban represent two opposing lines.
The idea has been taken over by the social democrat Austrian chancellor Faymann, whose EPP interior minister Mikl-Leitner already threatened Greece in January with a "temporary exclusion from the Schengen zone".
Last week, Orban and the three other leaders from the Visegrad group of countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia - said that "an alternative back up plan" should be ready if more migrants were to come to Europe through Turkey and Greece.
Suggesting a closure of borders with Greece, they anticipated a humanitarian crisis in the country and proposed assistance.
The move "may bring additional impacts on the Hellenic Republic and would, therefore, necessitate a corresponding level of complex assistance, including humanitarian, to be provided," they said in their statement.
'The whole EU would dismantle'
"Schengen is of the highest value for us. Pushing Greece out is not our first choice. But a plan B is better than to replace Schengen," a source from a Visegard country told EUobserver.
This is the scenario that is now unfolding with the Austrian-Balkan initiative, one that the commission, together with Germany and some other EU countries, had wished to avoid.
"We cannot let Greece become an open air detention camp," a senior EU diplomat said, adding that "preserving the integrity of Schengen" was crucial for the EU.
Financial and geopolitical concerns also come under consideration as Greece is engaged in an €85 billion bailout programme.
"We do not want 500,000 migrants to destabilise the Greek government and Greece itself," a source from another influential country said.
"We would not see our money back and the whole EU would dismantle."
On Tuesday, Greek government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili told journalists that Athens was "ready to handle any kind of situation that might occur due to increased migrant flows, no matter how difficult this could be".
On 12 February, the EU officially sent Greece 50 demands for stepping up control of its borders within a three-month deadline, after a commission report said that the government had "seriously neglected its obligations".
The procedure was launched mainly to give Germany and Austria a legal basis to prolong border controls in May in case all requirements were not met, which many assume will be the case.
So far, Germany's policy has been to push Greece to improve the control of its borders and negotiate with Turkey to reduce the flow of refugees, while trying to keep Greece in the Schengen system.
But at the EU summit last week, Merkel said that Austria's initiative "made matters more urgent for us to see whether we are on the right track or whether we ought to adopt alternative measures".
On Sunday (21 February), the German interior minister said that the next two weeks would be "decisive".
"If the steps agreed upon by all the European states work, then other measures won't be necessary," he said. If not, he added, "protecting the Schengen area would have to take place at different borders".
Less than a year after an exit from the eurozone was avoided at the last minute, Greece's fate will once again depend partly on Germany. This time, the deadline could be 7 March, when an EU-Turkey summit is planned.