Thursday

29th Jun 2017

Analysis

Greek migration crisis enters worst-case scenario

  • Migrants near the Greek village of Idomeni, at the Macedonian border. "We cannot let Greece become an open air detention camp," a diplomat said. (Photo: Reuters)

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

'Unfriendly move'

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.

EU upset by Austria's asylum 'provocation'

The decision to cap the number of asylum seekers and wave them on to neighbouring countries is a blow to Germany and has been deemed unlawful by the EU Commission.

EU unveils €700m refugee fund with Greece in mind

The EU commission plans to spend up €700 million on refugee aid in member states over the next three years. "This assistance, to a great extent, will go to Greece," a senior official said.

EU at breaking point over migration crisis

EU divisions over the migrant crisis reached a new low on Thursday, with Greece saying that it won’t become “Europe’s Lebanon” and accusing Austria of “19th century attitudes.”

Security and defence to top EU summit

Pressure is mounting for social media platforms to remove any online content deemed to incite terrorism. Draft conclusions, seen by EUobserver, have made the issue a top priority in leaders' talks next week.

News in Brief

  1. EU parliament adopts mandate for 2018 budget talks
  2. EU commission launches pan-EU pension plan
  3. EU eases police access to databases
  4. Schulz calls for ban of Erdogan rally
  5. Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with Macron in Paris
  6. EU extended Russia sanctions until 2018
  7. Netherlands partially liable for Srebrenica massacre, court rules
  8. Cyprus reunification talks resume in Switzerland

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFNarrowing the Gaps: The Power of Investing in the Health of the Poorest Children
  2. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  3. EU2017EEGet the Latest News from the 2017 Estonian EU Council Presidency @EU2017EE
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Against Critical Voices
  5. European Free AllianceEFA Is Looking for a New Intern
  6. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law
  7. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan Statin Therapy Interfere With a Physically Active Lifestyle?
  8. EPSUOn Public Services Day, Stop Austerity! Workers Need a Pay Rise!
  9. EGBAOnline Gambling: The EU Court Rejects Closed Licensing Regimes In Member States
  10. World VisionFaces of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow: Join the Debate on Violence Against Girls - 29 June
  11. ECR GroupThe EU Must Better Protect Industry from Unfair Competition
  12. Malta EU 2017Better Protection for Workers From Cancer-Causing Substances

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUAfter 9 Years of Austerity Europe's Public Sector Workers Deserve a Pay Rise!
  2. UNICEFEU Trust Fund Contribution to UNICEF's Syria Crisis Response Reaches Nearly €200 Million
  3. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan an Ideal Body Weight Lead to Premature Death?
  4. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Charges: What Does It Entail?
  5. World VisionWorld Refugee Day, a Dark Reminder of the Reality of Children on the Move
  6. Dialogue PlatformMuslims Have Unique Responsibility to Fight Terror: Opinon From Fethullah Gülen
  7. EUSEW17Check out This Useful Infographic on How to Stay Sustainable and Energy Efficient.
  8. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Criticises the Juncker Plan's Implementation
  9. UNICEF1 in 5 Children in Rich Countries Lives in Relative Income Poverty, 1 in 8 Faces Food Insecurity
  10. International Partnership for Human Rights26 NGOs Call on Interpol Not to Intervene Versus Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders
  11. Malta EU 2017Significant Boost in Financing for SMEs and Entrepreneurs Under New Agreement
  12. World VisionYoung People Rise up as EU Signs Consensus for Development at EU Development Days